Cambodian police man a barricade outside a prison in Trapaing Phlong in Tbong Khmum province on September 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

Ask any Cambodian about the key issues facing their country and chances are that crime will be near the top of the list. But on nearly all counts, the country’s justice system is failing.

According to the National Police, 2,969 crimes were committed last year, up from 2,817 in 2017. The number stands in contrast to the nation’s bulging prison population, however.

In November, Interior Minister Sar Kheng revealed that there were 31,008 inmates in Cambodia’s 28 prisons, of which almost 72% were being held in pre-trial detention.

That means there are roughly 190 prisoners per every 100,000 people, a bigger proportion than in most other Southeast Asian nations, and higher as a percentage than even authoritarian China.

The prison population has ballooned in recent years after the government launched in 2017 an anti-drug crackdown, similar in tone but not atrocity to the one Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has championed. As a result, the number of inmates rose by 30% in 2017 alone, mostly for drug-related offenses.

The problem is bigger than drugs, though. The Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2016, carried out by the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics, found that 5% of surveyed households were victims of property crimes, such as theft and burglary.

Prisoners held at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

But anecdotal evidence suggests that almost all petty crime goes unreported to the police. A 2014 United National Development Program report on sexual violence even found that the vast majority of women and men rape victims never report the crime.

“People do not trust law implementation and the justice system in Cambodia,” said Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger and frequent contributor to the youth-centered group Politikoffee.

In recent months, the government has tried to be seen as tackling higher-level crimes.

Last month, the Cambodian Police signed a new agreement with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to cooperate against transnational crime. The government also issued yet another directive aimed at stopping rampant trafficking along its borders.

The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, reached out to other governments, including South Korea’s, to help provide training against cybercrime.

The government’s anti-drug campaign scored a big fish catch when in March the police arrested Kith Thieng, the brother of prominent and well-connected business tycoon Kith Meng.

Kith Thieng’s Rock Entertainment Center nightclub was raided the previous month and the haul of drugs and other contraband discovered marked one of the police’s largest busts in years, according to media reports.

“I thought the government was hot to trot after drugs, and went after Kith Meng’s brother to show Kith Meng who the boss is,” said Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

Police raid Phnom Penh’s Rock Entertainment Center on drug trafficking suspicions earlier this year. Image: Facebook

The police have also arrested other notable figures. Hun Chea, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew, was jailed last year for firing a gun during a domestic dispute, a ruling that allowed a ruling party spokesman to claim that “anyone who breaks a law shall be held accountable before the law.”

Yet most ordinary Cambodians feel the emphasis is on petty rather than high-level crime. For them, the justice system works on two different systems: one for the rich and another for the poor, said political analyst Sreysrors Ly.

“If crime is committed by ordinary people, the trial will follow the [legal] procedure,” she said. “However, if there is a case in which a rich or high ranking person committed a crime, there is a less hope for justice or that the court will follow procedure – there may be a secret deal behind the scene.”

Clearly, the government wants to show that it is trying to foster more equitable justice. Hun Sen has intervened lately to ensure wealthy perpetrators are brought to justice. In March, for example, he intervened when a young student was killed in a hit-and-run by the daughter of a wealthy family.

No doubt, the government’s latest efforts to appear tough on organized crime are also designed to undo some of the bad publicity it is has attracted.

In October, the latest Basel Anti-Money Laundering Index ranked Cambodia as among countries most at risk of money laundering, while in February the Global money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placed Cambodia on its “grey list” of offenders.

The FATF report noted that the Cambodian Financial Intelligence Unit, an investigator under the country’s National Bank, has done almost nothing to supervise Cambodia’s booming casino and real estate sectors, which reports suggest are rife with money laundering.

A Cambodian woman holds riel bank notes. Photo: AFP Forum

The World Justice Project’s latest Rule of Law Index, meanwhile, ranked Cambodia as the second worst country in the world, beating only failed state Venezuela. Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said in an interview with the local Khmer Times that the WJP report was biased and “does not reflect the real situation in Cambodia.”

The government may well want to appear to be “tough on crime,” especially in relation to high-level offenses. But, to employ an aged British political slogan, it shows little interest on being “tough on the causes of crime.”

“I agree that the government has done many things to tackle the issues of crime related with trafficking and smuggling compared to the past,” said Sreysrors Ly. But “corruption and independence of the courts” are still major problems of the justice system, she added.

Indeed, there are serious institutional issues in the criminal justice system that could be easily remedied if the government gave them sufficient priority, observers say.

Police are underpaid and short-staffed, while Cambodia’s patronage-based bureaucracy means that people tend to be promoted based on alliances, not competency or integrity.

In October, Phnom Penh municipal police chief Sar Thet launched a rather honest critique of corruption in his own ranks, noting that often during an arrest perpetrators “simply offer US$4 or $5, or a $10 bill and [the police] are gone.”

A survey on the public’s perception of crime conducted by researchers at the University of Cambodia found that 56% of respondents said the police hadn’t done anything about a reported crime.

Police officers stand guard near the Supreme Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, October 31, 2017. Photo: Twitter

“There is not much trust in the police/authorities being able to capture the perpetrator and in the justice system to prosecute and punish the perpetrator,” the report summarized.

Enforcement of even the most basic laws is rudimentary. Despite modern driving laws on the books, one of the leading causes of death remains traffic accidents; around 1,900 people died in car crashes in 2017 alone, or about five people a day.

In many ways, car accidents best illustrate the problem. When there is an accident, a lack of faith in the justice system means that onlookers doubt the reckless driver will be punished, which often leads to drivers being pulled from their vehicles and beaten by mobs, explained Noan Sereiboth.

But fear of being assaulted by onlookers means many drivers instead flee from the scene of the accident (about one in four accidents is a hit-and-run) which means that the injured person is more likely to die, as drivers do not immediately call the emergency services.

For those that are caught and convicted, jails are overcrowded and underfunded. A local nongovernmental report last year found that all 18 prisons it surveyed “are holding three times as many prisoners as they should.”

The government identified overcrowding as a major concern last year. However, its chief recommendation to resolve the crisis was to build privately-funded “pay-to-stay” jails to house those that could afford them, a very small percentage of the prison population.

Cambodian detainees in a prison truck as they arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in a file photo. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy

Licadho, another local NGO, has for years called for major reforms to the prison system, especially in regard to bail. “People accused of a crime, even petty offenses, are rarely offered bail,” reads its ‘Time for Bail: Ending Needless Mass Detention in Cambodia’ report published last year.

It found that in the 18 prisons it surveyed, one-third of all detainees were serving pre-trial detention. That understates the problem: the Interior Ministry revealed last year that almost 72% of inmates were in pre-trial detention.

The Justice Ministry’s solution the overcrowding problem has simply been to speed up court cases for people in pre-trial detention, which analysts believe might lead to even more miscarriages of justice.

“In Cambodia people accused of crimes are often treated as if they are guilty until proven innocent,” said Licadho’s director Naly Pilorge in a statement last year. “Justice is not being served but it could be if the law was followed.”

Most observers agree that Cambodia’s justice system needs deep-rooted reform.

But it’s not clear that’s forthcoming under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which fashioned a de-facto one-party state last year and relies on patronage and rule by law for its own survival.

But even tentative reforms might make a difference. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith visited Cambodia earlier this month and praised the government’s new system of providing legal aid to poor defendants, as well as instituting more transparency in court and legal fees.

Children in jail with their mothers in Cambodia in a file photo. Image: Facebook

At the same time, she also said that little improvement has been made in prison overcrowding and rules on pre-trial detention since her visit to the country last year.

The glacial pace of Cambodia’s bureaucracy is hindering progress. The Juvenile Justice Law, for example, was passed in 2017 to ease punishment of infant offenders, yet an operational plan wasn’t introduced until last December.

At the time, there were an estimated 1,535 children in prison, mostly the offspring of adult female offenders who are often forced to raise their children in jail.

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