Two teenagers can conspire to steal a chicken and wind up in jail for 10 years, while a grown man convicted of stealing a motorbike may be put away for a matter of months.
Such is the law in Cambodia, and according to Chou Vineath, manager of the Center for Social Development’s Court Watch Project, it’s time for that to change.
Under the 2001 law on aggravating circumstances, an act of theft committed by multiple persons is punishable by tougher measures than an act of theft committed by a single person, regardless of the suspects’ age, Chou Vineath said.
No one younger than 14 can be tried in a court of law, but people 14 and older who conspire to steal can be sentenced to between five and 10 years each. A single perpetrator, by contrast, can receive a sentence ranging from six months to five years.
Many believe the law unfairly punishes young Cambodians who commit acts of petty theft.
“We are concerned with the small crimes which have little impact, but the courts have severe punishments,” Chou Vineath said.
Addressing this concern, the Protection of Juvenile Justice NGO has produced a television spot in which two boys caught stealing a helmet and a raincoat receive sentences of five years each. It is intended to educate youths who might be unaware of the strict punishments given to those acting in groups.
“We want to tell the children and their parents not to steal,” PJJ coordinator Sok Phana said, adding that the minute-long spot, which first aired March 20, will be shown on CTN through April 24.
Sok Phana also said judges handing out sentences should consider Article 48 of the Constitution, which protects the rights of children.
“In other countries, children are in rehabilitation centers. In our country, they are all in the prisons,” he said.
Monh Saphan, Funcinpec lawmaker and vice chairman of the National Assembly’s legislation commission, said Monday that the law reflects a bygone time when theft was rampant.
“I think it should be amended,” he said, adding that he has seen the PJJ spot and agreed with its message.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said the law strictly delineates punishments, but a certain amount of leeway is at the discretion of judges, who should consider various factors when sentencing.
“Our law is written so….if it is two people, it is robbery,” he said, adding that those conspiring have necessarily premeditated their crime, generally making it a more severe offense.
“But they also need to look at the situation,” he said of judges, adding that just because more than one person is doing the stealing doesn’t necessarily make it a serious crime.