Study Examines Harsh Tactics Used by Police to Gain Confessions
By Nathan Deuel
the cambodia daily
Desperately asserting his innocence, a man fails to deflect blows received while in police custody and soon falls unconscious. He awakens in his cell to discover his fingerprint at the bottom of a confession of guilt written crudely in the hand of the arresting officer.
Almost 80 percent of clients retained by Legal Aid of Cambodia, an NGO which provides legal service free of charge, claim to have been physically mistreated while in police custody.
Nearly 90 percent of pre-trial and convicted prison inmates interviewed by the human rights NGO Licadho stated that they gave a confession to the police after arrest.
Such are the by-products of a phenomenon of Cambodia’s criminal and justice systems—an institutionalized form of torture practiced to extract confessions.
Violent police often share responsibility with negligent judges, overwhelmed lawyers, a sea of fearfully inactive victims and, perhaps most importantly, lawmakers.
And if it ever receives any serious attention from the lawmakers it implicates, just one recommendation concerning the admissibility of confessions as evidence, included in a study undertaken by Licadho, could severely reduce torture.
One former national law enforcement official told Licadho: “The police don’t see themselves as torturers. It’s just a way to get something done—If you want a statement of confession, this is what you do.”
While ignorance of standard investigating procedure may grow more acute beyond the boundaries of Phnom Penh, the report concludes the city is the capital of torture.
Often knowing no better due to a lack of training, police fail to gather evidence prior to arrests, and are thereby forced to quickly build cases during the 48-hour period legally allowed for detainment.
Police resort to a simple, quick and often very violent method of incrimination—confessions.
Negligent judges, in turn, encourage and permit poor police investigative habits.
Contradictory laws exist on Cambodian books that leave the validity of confessions in criminal trials ill-defined. One explicitly forbids the use of self-incriminating documents as evidence in criminal cases, while the other vaguely permits their use as “information,” the Licadho report said.
Judges are near-unanimous in their legal assessment of the potential confusion, the study showed, and regularly convict in criminal cases when confessions are the sole evidence.
Judges also routinely ignore signs of torture, according to the report, and many even taunt frightened and injured victims.
Licadho’s study concluded with a series of explicit recommendations for national government agencies and NGOs written to accelerate the elimination of torture in Cambodia.
One challenged Cambodian lawmakers to redraft criminal procedure to prohibit the admissibility of confessions in criminal trials given by detainees in police custody. Though police violence would not vanish, such a law could significantly reduce widely institutionalized use of torture.
Licadho published the 149-page report “Less Than Human” for release on June 26, the day proclaimed in 1987 as International Day in Support of Victims of Torture by the UN General Assembly. One month later, some officials in areas of the government challenged to action by the report said they had not yet read the English-language study and declined to comment.
General Khieu Sopheak, Ministry of Interior spokesman, had not yet read the report, but said, “The main problem [of torture] has already been solved….People no longer disappear.”
Other officials, blaming tight schedules, have said they will try to find time to read the report.
Without concrete action from the government, confessions—and the violence often necessary for their extraction—will probably remain a fixture of the Cambodian judicial landscape. And it will probably continue to be largely unpunished.
The report cites only one conviction —a military policeman who spent four months in jail for the death of a boy beaten while in custody. Provisions in Cambodian law for the appointment of legal representation are vague, according to Licadho, and lawyers often do not gain access to clients until well after arrest, when wounds have healed.
Without evidence of torture, victims and lawyers must develop more complex cases—a task often too daunting for the 220-odd members of the Cambodian Bar Association and perceived as too risky for fearful victims.
Isiah Gant, UN Judicial Mentor, has worked directly with Cambodian lawyers and judges since 1996, helping them learn to work within the legal parameters set up by the nation’s lawmakers to combat human rights violations.
During his four-year tenure, he said he knew of only one person who had been “harassed” for an attempt to question an official on the subject of torture—a lawyer who spent one night in a Sihanoukville jail for angering a clerk with his inquiries.
Gant expressed approval of the report and its recommendations, but lamented the likelihood of continued inaction by lawmakers, judges, lawyers and victims alike.
“Every great social movement starts with one person,” he said. “Who will act on this report?”