While a corrupt justice system and piecemeal law enforcement remain major obstacles, Cambodia has made modest steps toward ensuring democratic rights, according to a US State Department annual report released this week.
Cambodians enjoyed comparatively unfettered freedom of assembly, a promising sign in advance of commune elections slated for 2002, the report states. While demonstrators were required to apply for a permit, which the government sometimes denied, “these actions had no practical effect since most such assemblies were held anyway.”
The report notes that on occasion counter-demonstrations, led by supporters of the government, resulted in scuffles with police. Some critics have alleged the counter-demonstrations were made up of state security forces and CPP-hired agitators.
There was only one clear case of a politically motivated killing in 2000 compared to “numerous” killings in 1998, the report found. In last year’s killing, of a Funcinpec member in Kampot province, the suspected perpetrator was arrested—a move that is unprecedented in recent Cambodian history.
However, nonpolitical mob killings, often witnessed by police, remain widespread, and the perpetrators seldom—if ever—are prosecuted, the report found.
Trade unions have become more active, mainly in the garment sector, but the union movement, “still in its infancy, is very weak.”
The report describes “credible” reports of illegal anti-union activity by employers, and notes that none of the perpetrators have been punished.
Cambodia’s judiciary “is not independent,” the report asserts. Impunity, corruption and underpaid, poorly trained judges continue to mitigate against citizens’ rights to justice.
Trials are usually perfunctory. The verdict is sometimes determined by a bribe to the judge before the case gets to court. Written statements by the accused and witnesses are usually the only evidence presented in court, the report states.
Such statements by the accused sometimes are coerced through beating or threats from investigating officials, and illiterate defendants often are not informed of the content of written confessions they are forced to sign, the report states.
Efforts last year to fix some of the problems by following up complaints and disciplining a handful of judges had little practical effect, the report states. The Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which oversees and appoints judges, “is viewed widely as biased toward the CPP, resulting in complaints by other political parties of its institutional dominance.”
Police also “routinely conducted warrantless searches and seizures.” Phnom Penh Municipal Police “beat or tortured persons routinely,” the report states.
With the construction of several new prisons and extra funds for food and operating costs, convicts’ conditions improved, but “there were credible reports that members of the security forces tortured, beat and otherwise abused persons in custody, often to extract confessions, according to the report.
“Prison conditions remained harsh, and the government continues to use arbitrary arrest and prolonged pretrial detention,” the report states.
Despite efforts to crack down on sex offenders, enforcement was underfunded and trafficking “remained a serious problem,” the report found.
The rise in foreign visitors heightened fears about sex tourism, and the government prosecuted at least three cases against foreign sex offenders in 2000, the report found. In the past, rights groups have complained foreign sex-offenders usually bribed their way out of prosecution and seldom served substantial jail time
In March, a Poipet brothel owner was jailed for the beating death of a prostitute, a case “regarded widely as the first successful prosecution of a crime against a sex worker,” the report states.
The report is likely to be used by US lawmakers debating the resumption of aid from Washington to the Cambodian government.