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For Suspects, Little Presumption of Innocence: Experts

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project.

Cambodian legal experts say the procedures for arrest and detention and the roles of lawyers remain flawed, with a system that keeps people in jail without trial and a culture that does not respect the rights of suspects.

Overall, the legal system was designed for the presumption of innocence. However, nowadays many people are being held only on complaints.

“I’ve heard some officials say that when the police turn in [a suspect], they have to detain him,” Sok Sam Oeun, head of the Cambodian Defenders Project told “Hello VOA” Monday. “If the court officials understand it like that, it means there’s a mistake.”

According to the penal code, the accused has a right to freedom, he said. They can be detained only in special circumstances, including the protection of witnesses or the prevention of ongoing crimes.

Accused have the right to rapid testimony and to present evidence to a judge before he decides to detain them, he said. They should not be detained first and considered later, he said.

Chan Saveth, chief monitor for the rights group Adhoc, said there are more than 15,000 prisoners nationwide in a detention system that cannot hold them. Some have not been tried or handed verdicts. There are thousands of these cases, he said.

“This is the carelessness of the courts,” he said.

Suspects are not respected or protected in other ways. Sometimes a suspect is splayed across the front pages of newspapers alongside police, where they are called “perpetrators” instead of suspects. This can be damaging to the reputations of people, especially the innocent or wrongly accused, Sok Sam Oeun said.

Chan Saveth said these photographs are taken because police want to showcase their performance, but they have not considered the reputation of the suspects.

“We seen this spread all over the country, and it has almost become culture,” he said on “Hello VOA” Monday.

If it does happen, people aren’t sure how to complain or to regain their reputations, he said. A lawsuit may bring more trouble down the road, especially for those still in detention, so many are reluctant to file a complaint, he said.

Still, prosecutors and judges alike can be punished by the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the prosecutor general or the Supreme Court, he said.

“If people want to file complaints against officials at court, lawyers and rights group will help,” he said.

Other problems include excessive detention without charge beyond the 72-hour limit. Cambodia needs to find a way to prevent this, Sok Sam Oeun said. In the Philippines, the law says the state must pay a suspect $1,000 per day for unlawful detention, he said.

“So when they make a law like this, it makes the authorities afraid,” he said. This helps move cases through the courts.

The courts must be seen as fair, he said, or people will avoid them, including filing complaints. So far, they are seen as slow. “Now the prosecutors seem to be very inactive, because everything depends on the investigating judges,” he said. “They just wait to submit the introductory submission to the judge and wait for the hearing.”