Prosecutor Ros Sereysocheata drove home her point forcefully: The defendant, she said, was unquestionably guilty of human trafficking and having sex with a minor.
As she wound up her closing argument, the panel of judges was gripped and the tension in the courtroom palpable. When a guilty verdict was handed down in the case of Srey Tevy, the public gallery erupted in applause.
But the “courtroom” was in fact a meeting hall at the Phnom Penh International University and the case entirely fictional—a mock trial to prepare a new generation of criminal lawyers for their day in an actual court.
For Ms. Sereysocheata, a 20-year-old law student at Royal University of Law and Economics who has dreamed of being a lawyer since she was a child, winning the mock trial competition—held over three days this week—was a big moment.
But she and her fellow participants, all fourth-year students from universities across Phnom Penh, are preparing to enter a judicial system that does not reward legal chops. Cambodia’s courts, critics say, are rife with corruption and completely lacking independence from the ruling CPP.
In 2010, Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, described the judiciary as “an institution that does not command the confidence of people from many walks of life.”
Little has changed in the intervening years. In its 2013 country report on human rights in Cambodia, the U.S. State Department was equally scathing.
“The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive branch, and there was widespread corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials,” it said. “At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined.”
However, Ms. Sereysocheata is optimistic about what she and her cohort can achieve once they are admitted to the bar.
“I think now Cambodia is better than before but some things we still need to change. Maybe it can start from the younger generation, like us, to implement our laws better and we have to reduce the corruption in our society,” she said.
Sem Sereyrachana, 20, another member of the victorious mock trial team, said although issues with the application of laws remained, she felt that Cambodia’s judicial system was becoming less corrupt.
“After Pol Pot regime there were not many remaining officials, and those who were selected in the past got in by nepotism or money,” she said. “There is much improvement compared to the past. There is less reliance on nepotism and money.”
But well-known human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, founder of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the reality was much starker.
“The normal cases I know that [we can] win or lose but political cases we must lose and the cases against powerful people are similar,” he said. “The political cases because of the lack of independence of the judiciary and the powerful because of corruption.”
Mr. Sam Oeun said he fought “only for justice.” Asked if he thought other lawyers in Cambodia did the same, he laughed and replied, “Maybe not many.”
Mr. Sam Oeun said it was difficult for young lawyers to forge an independent path because they had to defer to senior colleagues.
Before they can be called to the bar, prospective lawyers work under a senior practicing lawyer, who must recommend their appointment to the Bar Association of Cambodia.
It remains an exclusive and difficult-to-enter club. According to the association, there are just 725 registered lawyers—in a country of about 15 million people.
Asked whether bribery played a part in this process or the courts generally, Pisey Kong, senior lawyer for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said: “It’s very hard to answer this question. They hide what they are doing, so how can we know?”
Mr. Kong said that despite the right to a fair trial being enshrined in Cambodian law, he had seen many cases where this was not applied.
“Generally, [the system] is unfair, but people have rights before the law,” he said.
However, Tan Sihak Dechak, a prosecutor in Pursat province, said draft judicial reform laws recently passed by the government would address any flaws.
“I’ve never seen any problem in the system,” he said. “When we decided on a case, if not satisfied, [people] can appeal.”
Lawyer Suon Visal, who acted as a legal adviser to Nuon Chea at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, said he did not have faith in the reforms, which will grant the justice minister key powers over the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.
“The reforms contradict the independence of judges, and checks and balances,” he said.
Mr. Visal listed a shortage of lawyers, low salaries and a lack of legal understanding among court officials as major challenges holding back the judicial system. He said the next generation of attorneys would have to take a more outspoken and ethical approach than their predecessors if they hope for effective reforms.
“When the students dare to speak out, they dare to [make changes],” he said.
“But if the aforementioned factors are still not resolved—their salaries are still not enough and there is no proper monitoring system—when opportunity arises, they might choose to be corrupt all the same.”
Asked what she would do if a client wanted her to bribe a judge, second-year law student Lim Rathanakleapheal, 19, said she would decline.
“For me as a lawyer, I don’t think I would do that. I think the client might hate it, but it’s better to have a name as a good lawyer rather than a bad one,” she said.
Thy Da, 21, a member of the winning mock trial team who is in her final year of studies, said she wanted to fight to protect the rights of the poor and powerless.
“I think it may be difficult but…I want [victims] to have hope again and I just think that the law is more powerful than bad people,” she said.
“Nowadays maybe I think that Cambodia has authorities and powerful people [who] cower the victims or witnesses. I want to help all of them to have their rights like other people.”
Billy Chia-Lung Tai, a human rights adviser at the Cambodian Human Rights Committee and one of the mock trial judges, said their idealism was characteristic of the students he lectured at two law schools in the capital.
“I see the young lawyers and law students and they are very, very bright and have a lot of ideals,” he said.
“I hope we can channel those into practice…and hopefully bring about a generational shift into the system.”
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