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Children Need More Protection in Justice System: Report

Cambodian children lay in a hummock for sleeping at the sidewalk as swinging by their mother in Phnom Penh, file photo.
Cambodian children lay in a hummock for sleeping at the sidewalk as swinging by their mother in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Children who are the victims or witnesses to crimes face an unfriendly system that can continue doing damage after a crime is committed, researchers said this week.

In a report, “A System Just for Children,” issued Wednesday, the children’s group Hagar says children face problems in reporting crimes to police, in getting support from lawyers and the court, in medical examinations and other stages of any criminal case.

While noting improvements in Cambodia’s judicial system, including protocols and procedures to protect children, the report notes that the “implementation of ‘child-friendly justice’ remains limited.”

Children who are the victims or witnesses of a crime, for example, are often brought into the courtroom at the same time as the alleged perpetrator. Sometimes they are brought to court in the same truck.

The report summarizes six months of research, including interviews with 54 children. And while most said they were treated compassionately by police, 20 percent interviewed reported extortion attempts by police to act on their cases.

“The police extorted us, demanding money before they worked,” one girl, the victim of sexual assault, told researchers. “Eventually my brother sold his cell phone to get money to pay the police. Then the district-level police asked for money too. So my brother borrowed some money to pay for them. After they got this money, they caught the perpetrator within two days.”

Local and international rights groups have long been critical of Cambodia’s justice system, where abuse and corruption is widespread. The Hagar report is a comprehensive look at how unfriendly the system can be, particularly to children.

Many of the child victims of crimes are young girls, the report notes. But only about 10 percent of them meet with female doctors. And parents or other adults are seldom allowed to be present during such examinations. In more than half the cases, results are not shared with victims or families. Nearly half of medical examinations took place more than a week after the crimes, creating poor results.

One 15-year-old girl in the report recounted a painful examination. “I told the doctor, but he said, ‘I don’t have time to spend with patients so do not complain,’” she said.

If the police do catch a perpetrator, and after examinations and investigations, children must then appear in court. Many reported being frightened to do so, either because they will be in the same room as their assailants, or because the courtrooms are often full of people. The children have limited time with lawyers, and often don’t have the full information about their cases. And, even when a perpetrator is sent to jail, that’s not the end of it.

“I am still fearful that the man’s relatives will take revenge on me for sending him to jail,” one young girl told researchers. “That is why I still live here [in NGO] and why I will not go home.”

Overall, the report is deeply critical of the system, from police to courts.

Yim Verak, deputy secretary-general of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking in Persons, told reporters that he neither agreed nor disagreed with the report’s findings, but he suggested that police committing wrongdoings be named. In general, police act with discipline, he said. “I do not really know about this issue, but the most important thing is that the report should have been done with clarity.”

Sok Roeun, deputy chief prosecutor at the Court of Appeals, said the report should have been discussed with officials before it was released.

“The report is involved with many authorities, judicial police officials, prosecutors, investigative judges, presiding judges, and some material authority and NGOs,” he said. “It is linked to government policy. I think that before releasing the report, there should have been consensus and discussion with these institutions.”

In any case, in order to implement all of the recommendations in the report, the government needs financial support, he said. “Once you have money, you can do anything.” Such assistance can go toward training in the provinces and cities, he added.

Kila Reimer, the lead researcher of the Hagar study, said many reforms don’t, in fact, require money. “We provide a lot of suggestion for things that they can do that doesn’t cost anything because the system is already there,” she said. “The people are already in place. They just need to act on what they already know.”

Rana Flowers, country representative for Unicef, which provided support for the research, said Unicef and Hagar are working with authorities to improve the system.

Some recommendations are as simple as using a screen to protect the identities of children in court. Such screens, or even video equipment, is available in some courts, but they are not always used, she said.

Other recommendations in the report include helping children understand the legal process and creating a child-friendly process.

The government also needs to better collect data in cases involving children, Reimer said. “There are no consistent, methodical, comprehensive ways that the government is gathering data on the children in the system, so the only way that we know, the only way that we can get the figures, was to talk to NGOs, which is not at all representative of all the children. But it was a way to give us some ideas how many children are going in the system,” she said.

Without knowing the number of children going through the justice system, it is hard to address the problems, she said. She said she suspects many other children are sexually abused, and those crimes are unreported, as well. “So you have children who are victims of different types of crimes, but they don’t necessarily report it. And we have no idea how many of those there are.”

In the end, better systems can help ease the trauma for crimes against children, she said. “Psychological damage and physiological damage done from sex crimes is very great and last for a long time and affect every area of the victim’s life, as an adult or a child.”