The letter a 17-year-old Cambodian girl penned this week may shake the entrenched culture of corruption in Cambodia’s courts and bring a modicum of justice for victims of sex trafficking, lawyers and human rights workers said Thursday.
Roth Chreb, a victim of human trafficking and sexual slavery, lodged a complaint on Tuesday with Cambodia’s highest legal authority against a judge whom she alleges tried intimidation and bribery to make her drop charges against five defendants.
The complaint against Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Kong Set was sent Tuesday to the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the body responsible for ensuring independence in the courts, appointing judges and overseeing their conduct.
Legal advisers for Roth Chreb have also asked the UN human rights office here to pursue the case with the government, including an investigation into the income and assets of the judge and court officials to determine if they can be accounted for by their salaries.
“I am not afraid. I will do anything to find justice for myself,” Roth Chreb said on Thursday.
“The woman beat me all the time and forced me to have sex with customers, but the court acquitted her without charge,” she said.
Roth Chreb claims she was sold in mid-2001 to a brothel in Sihanoukville where she was imprisoned for four months, and whipped with electric cable to force her to have sex with clients.
Four people involved in Roth Chreb’s detention and the alleged brothel owner were arrested when she was rescued by police in January.
However, when Roth Chreb was called to make a statement against the accused in municipal court in April, Investigating Judge Kong Set allegedly ordered her lawyer to leave the room then proceeded, with a police official, to offer her money to settle the case.
The investigating judge—who is also alleged to have not recorded her testimony properly—later dismissed the case against the alleged brothel owner for lack of evidence, Roth Chreb claimed in her complaint.
Judge Kong Set said on Wednesday he was unaware of the complaint against him but defended his actions in the case.
“What we did was based on the law. All clients always demand their rights, but we cannot please all of them,” Kong Set said.
Despite numerous criticisms of court decisions, few victims of sex trafficking have sought intervention from the magistracy council, said Chanthol Oung, executive director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, which is assisting Roth Chreb in her case.
“This is the first action of its kind we are pursuing,” said Chanthol Oung. “We hope the Supreme Council of Magistracy will have clear evidence and a complaint on which to base an investigation.”
Francesca Marotta, spokesperson for the UN human rights office, said on Thursday that the case had been raised with the magistracy council by the UN.
Lack of responsiveness by the courts toward violence against women and trafficking cases is depriving victims of justice and fosters impunity, Marotta said.
“[The complaint] is obviously a good initiative,” she said. “It prompts the Supreme Council of Magistracy to exercise its oversight sanction over the judiciary.”
In January 2000, the Supreme Council of Magistracy removed Municipal Court Director Oum Sarith and Chief Prosecutor Kann Chhoeun following a high-profile investigation into some 66 accused criminals who were allegedly released by the courts after paying bribes.
The court scandal prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to order the rearrest of all those suspected of gaining freedom through bribery.
With the courts long being considered one of the most corrupt government institutions, judicial reform was again high on the agenda for discussion during the recent Consultative Group meeting of aid donors in Phnom Penh.
Government officials have promised progress in rooting out corruption, and Roth Chreb’s case could be a good starting point, Chanthol Oung said.
Other victims of questionable court decisions could follow Roth Chreb’s example and increase the pressure for accountability in the judicial system, she said.
“There could be change,” Chanthol Oung said.
CWCC lawyer Ith Phum said Wednesday the trial of the four remaining defendants in Roth Chreb’s case will take place on Aug 21. But Ith Phum said he hopes the case against the alleged brothel owner will be revived by the complaint letter.
“I don’t know what the procedure of the Supreme Council of Magistracy is, but I hope they investigate,” he said.
(Additional Reporting Nhem Chea Bunly and Kuch Naren)