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Justice Ministry: ‘Reforms’ Will Hasten Court Procedures to Reduce Prison Overcrowding

FILE: Justice Minister Koeut Rith joins at meeting at Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 07, 2020. (Photo from Ministry of Justice)
FILE: Justice Minister Koeut Rith joins at meeting at Ministry of Justice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 07, 2020. (Photo from Ministry of Justice)

The Ministry of Justice launched a campaign to reduce prison overcrowding and increasing logjam of cases at Cambodia’s courts by attempting to increase capacity at courts, accelerate trials and increase the use of bail and suspended sentences.

The campaign was announced on Monday and was touted as judicial reforms aimed at reducing the nearly 40,000 pending cases in the country, according to the Ministry of Justice. Of these cases, the ministry reported around 6,200 cases related to drug charges.

Newly-appointed Justice Minister Koeut Rith said the number of cases and inmates had increased on account of the government’s anti-drug campaign, which had resulted in an exponential increase in cases being sent to court.

According to ministry statistics, Phnom Penh Municipal Court had 12,000 cases pending, and was receiving 700 to 900 new cases every month.

“The first objective is to reduce stalled cases at the [lower] courts to speed up the process to seek justice for the people,” Koeut Rith said in the meeting. “Second is to reduce stalled cases by enhancing [the capacity of] these institutions in order to respond new cases.”

The campaign was different from what was announced by the Interior Ministry last week, when spokesperon Khieu Sopheak said prison inmates charged with minor offense would be released keeping in mind prison overcrowding and the novel coronavirus pandemic. There was no mention of this at the press conference on Monday.

The justice minister said the lack of capacity to deal with all the new cases and the extended investigation periods taken by investigating judges were slowing down the process.

Koeut Rith recommended using criminal procedure code provisions, specifically in Section 2 on the “Implementation of Criminal Actions,” that allows for procedures such as “direct hearing” and “immediate appearance” for misdemeanors.

In “immediate appearance,” the prosecutor can proceed to trial on the same day that he or she decides to charge a person with a misdemeanor, putting the entire court procedure on a fast track, though certain criteria have to be met to proceed with the trial.

Additionally, Koeut Rith wanted judges to also shorten the duration of their investigation periods, while also considering putting accused individuals under court supervision rather than sending them to prison for pre-trial detention.

Despite these directives, the minister maintained that the courts were still independent and could make their own rulings.

Minister Koeut Rith denied that bribery was endemic on the judicial process, despite multiple reporters questioning him about the role of corruption in procedures.

He said judicial officials found committing corruption would be dealt with harshly, but also put the onus on people to file complaints against errant officials.

“Now, if the [officials] are putting people in prisons for extorting money, let the [accused and their family] sue the [officials],” he said.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights monitoring at Licadho, said the new initiative was welcome, but that it should have been done earlier.

“It’s a bit too late but it’s a positive point for the formation of the commission to do the campaign to reduce stalled cases at the provincial and municipal courts,” he said.