The U.S. has once again named the endemic corruption of Cambodia’s judicial system as the country’s leading human rights problem in its latest annual report on human rights around the world.
Released in Washington on Saturday by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the report follows the first visit to Cambodia by a sitting U.S. head of state in November, when President Barack Obama met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and criticized his government’s rights record during a private meeting.
The new report for 2012 shows little discernable year-on-year improvement to that record, which it says was sullied by arbitrary killings by a security apparatus operating above the law, government land grants fueling violence and an election system and media that remain in the pocket of the ruling CPP.
The report also says it sees no sign that the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) is helping to curb graft.
“The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive branch, and there was widespread corruption among judges, prosecutors and court officials. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined,” the report says.
Moreover, the country’s military remained especially immune to the law, according to the report.
“In cases involving military personnel, military officials often exerted pressure on judges of civilian criminal courts to have the defendants released without trial,” the report says. “Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. Government officials and members of their families who committed crimes often enjoyed impunity.”
Police reportedly received much of the same favored treatment.
“Police officials committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases the government took little or no action,” the reported adds. “The law requires police, prosecutors and judges to investigate all complaints, including those of police abuses. However, in practice judges and prosecutors rarely conducted an independent investigation as part of a public trial.”
The report cited the case of Tek Sunday, a commune police officer in Kompong Cham province who allegedly shot and killed a 22-year-old man during a drinking party on April 9.
“There was no investigation into the killing and the victim’s family did not file a complaint after agreeing to accept financial compensation offered by police,” it says. “Tek Sunday remained free and on duty as a commune police officer.”
As well as evading the law, military officials and police were also deemed to have partaken in the sever abuse of prisoners in the country.
“There were credible reports that military and civilian police officials used physical and psychological torture and on occasion severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation,” the report says. “Kicking, punching and pistol whipping were the most common methods of physical abuse reported, but electric shock, suffocation, caning and whipping with wires were also used.”
The report does note, however, that such reports of violence had decreased since 2011.
Mak Sambath, deputy chair of the government’s Human Rights Committee, rejected the claims of prison or detainee abuse and claimed such crimes were not being prosecuted because there were none.
“If there were someone, he would be fired, punished or sent to court to face the law,” he said.
He did say, however, that plans were in the works to build interrogation rooms with glass walls so that the interrogation of suspects could be monitored.
Mr. Sambath said his committee had also been busy training hundreds of government employees on their human rights obligations and visiting the country’s prisons to monitor conditions.
“The Human Rights Committee goes to check the prisons every month to see their living conditions, their food, if they are tortured,” he said.
He declined to comment on the report’s claims of judicial corruption and interference, referring those questions to the court officials.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court director Chiv Keng declined to comment on the report’s findings as did officials at the ministries of justice and interior.
The report blamed some of the courts’ problems on modest resources, low salaries and poor training. Citing the Cambodian Bar Association, it says only 855 lawyers were at work across the country last year.
The government established the ACU in 2010 with the task of rooting out corruption, but observers were quick to criticize its lack of independence, transparency and staff.
And despite a few high-profile cases brought against government officials, the U.S. report says, “the ACU did not collaborate frequently with civil society, lacked sufficient resources and was not seen as effective in combating corruption.”
Om Yentieng, chairman of both the ACU and the government’s Human Rights Committee, could not be reached Sunday.
As for the government’s human rights bodies, they reportedly met only irregularly and carried out no independent investigations.
The report blames the government’s granting of large-scale land concessions, combined with its failure to demarcate much of the country’s land, for fueling “sometimes-violent disputes in every province” between poor locals and well-connected firms.
With national elections scheduled for July, the country’s electoral system and media also takes some rebuke.
The report says the government’s National Election Committee suffered a “paucity of independent voices” and that “the CPP also enjoyed dominant access to broadcast media,” skewing the political playing field.
To demonstrate the lack of independence in the judiciary, the report brings up the case of the independent Beehive Radio owner, and popular government critic, Mam Sonando. After a 20-year jail sentence last year on secessionist charges widely believed to have been trumped up, Mr. Sonando was released on appeal in March after intense international rebuke of the case but remains convicted of lesser—though equally dubious—crimes.
“Most observers agreed that Mam Sonando’s conviction was based on his frequent on-air criticism of the prime minister,” the report says.
It also cites the government’s move to bar radio stations from broadcasting reports of voting irregularities during last year’s commune elections. Government officials said they feared the broadcasts might “imbalance” the voting and have announced their plans to repeat the ban during national elections in July.