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In Courts, Power Can Trump Law

In recent years, battles in Cambodia’s courts have often been fought between a unified poor against money, the powerful or an unjust judge.

Rights groups have observed that when a large group attempts to defend its representatives, courts will postpone questioning or public hearings, a reflection of a trend for courts to side not with truth or law but with power or unified force.

Many of these cases involve land disputes, where the poor are often victims, said Thun Saray, director of the rights group Adhoc.

“If they want justice, they have to have a balance of power, or as much money as the other side,” he said. “The poor, who don’t have the balance of money or power, they will lose for sure. They can do nothing but unite to fight injustice.”

Rights groups continue to appeal to the government for reform of the judiciary, noting that injustice leads to social instability.

Thun Saray said he has noticed that when hundreds of people go to the courts to back their representatives, they are banned from joining proceedings, or proceedings are postponed.

Early last week, Licadho rights worker Chheng Sophors said, more than 300 villagers in Kratie province’s Snuol district gathered to support four men they feared would be arrested and taken in for questioning. The courts held off from any arrests, but Chheng Sophors said he still worried they will be taken in secret.

“If we all didn’t go with them, we were worried [the courts] would have arrested the four men,” said Lech Kreunh, a Stieng minority from Snuol district’s Kuychirung village.

This happens often. When many supporters follow potential suspects, “usually the courts don’t dare to proceed,” said Peng Bonnar, Adhoc coordinator for Ratanakkiri province.

The instinct to gather together to protect each other lies in traditions of the defense of common interest in collective communities, he added.

Kem Sophorn, a judge and inspector at the Ministry of Justice, said such behavior undermined Cambodia’s rule of law, where a Supreme Council of Magistracy, the king and the government work to ensure justice for citizens.

“Our judicial system is getting better,” he said. “The Ministry of Justice has investigated all cases in which complaints were filed. People who take the law into their our hands are wrong.”

When courts call someone in for questioning, they are not necessarily arresting them, he said. “By law, we don’t need to call them. We could just issue a warrant and have them arrested by police, while other villagers wouldn’t know.”

Rights groups should not encourage people to dishonor the law or mobilize them to take the law into their own hands, he said. Critics should identify specific judges or cases, but general criticism won’t solve the problem.

Such advice is little consolation for people like Sren Kert, 48, who fled to Phnom Penh last week, worried he would be arrested when he was called in for questioning at a court.

“They wanted to arrest me because I stood out in a protest,” he said. “They didn’t take into consideration the fact that land belongs to all villagers who protested.”

He repeated a few sayings that circulate about a court system that is viewed as corrupt and unfair: “My Lord Court: no money, no solution”

and “Lovely court: no dollar, no solution.”

“It is true,” he said.

People don’t trust the courts, which is why they amass in large groups, said Licadho founder Kek Galabru.

“Three or four hundred of them will come to tell the court that they support the suspects who are being tried,” she said. “They have done nothing wrong by showing their support, and it is within their rights.”

Kek Galabru denied the charges that rights agencies encouraged villagers to take the law into their own hands.

“Organizations only give them consultation about the law, explaining to them legal procedures,” Adhoc’s Thun Saray said. “It has been their own idea to unite.”

Suon Visal, secretary-general of the Cambodian Bar Association, said properly defending some cases can be difficult, meanwhile, because alleged victims or suspects are often ill-prepared. Villagers may not have the legal understanding their opponents do, making it difficult to win at a case that requires deep investigation.

“Often they don’t prepare themselves to fight for justice,” he said. “For example, the court asks for some legal requirements, and they don’t do it. When it comes to the hearing, they don’t have evidence; they lose. They only rely on the truth, so it causes a lot of difficulty for the lawyer.”