Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government generally did not respect judicial independence. The courts were subject to influence and interference by the executive branch, which has the authority to promote, dismiss, and discipline judges at will. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the CPP or the executive received appointments to the judiciary. Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was very inefficient and could not assure due process.
Observers alleged the Bar Association of Cambodia (BAC) heavily favored admission of CPP-aligned members at the expense of nonaligned and opposition attorneys and at times admitted unqualified individuals to the bar solely due to their political affiliation. Impartial analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined. For example, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared shortly before the November 2017 Supreme Court hearing on the dissolution of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), that he was “99.99 percent certain” the court would decide to dissolve the opposition party.
A shortage of judges and courtrooms delayed many cases, according to NGO reports. In August, BAC reported there were only 151 judges in the country. NGOs also believed court officials focused on cases that might benefit them financially. Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. As in past years, NGOs asserted that rich or powerful defendants, including members of the security forces, often paid money to victims and authorities to drop criminal charges. Authorities sometimes urged victims or their families to accept financial restitution in exchange for dropping criminal charges or for failing to appear as witnesses.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary rarely enforced this right.
Defendants are by law presumed innocent and have the right of appeal, but they often resorted to bribery rather than rely on the judicial process. Trials are often public and frequently face delays due to court bureaucracy. Court staffers reportedly undertook efforts to speed case processing. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, confront and question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. In felony cases, if a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the law requires the court to provide the defendant with free legal representation; however, the judiciary was not able to provide legal counsel, and most defendants sought assistance from NGOs, pro bono representation, or “voluntarily” proceeded without legal representation. In the absence of required defense attorneys in felony cases, trial courts routinely adjourned cases until defendants could secure legal representation, a process that often took months. Trials were typically perfunctory, and extensive cross-examination usually did not take place. The courts offered free interpretation. The law extends these rights to all defendants.
There was a critical shortage of trained lawyers, particularly outside the capital. The right to a fair public trial often was denied de facto for persons without means to secure counsel. A report by the International Commission of Jurists indicated the high cost of bribes needed to join the bar association was partly responsible for keeping the number of trained lawyers low, which helped raise lawyers’ income whether earned through legal or illegal means.
NGOs reported sworn written statements from witnesses and the accused usually constituted the only evidence presented at trials. Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats, or forced illiterate defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted such forced confessions as evidence during trials despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO, which observed the appellate courts from November 1, 2016, to October 31, 2017, while they heard 340 cases involving 558 defendants, 20 defendants were threatened and 40 defendants were tortured to confess. The difficulty in transferring prisoners from provincial prisons to the appeals court in Phnom Penh meant that defendants were present at less than one-half of all appeals.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
As of August 1, a local human rights NGO estimated authorities held 21 political prisoners or detainees. In September, following the postelection pardons and several grants of bail, the same NGO estimated the number at five.
Among those released after the election was Kem Sokha, leader of the opposition CNRP. In September 2017 police arrested him on charges of treason. Several high-ranking CNRP officials went into hiding and most fled abroad. The government’s case against Kem Sokha centered on a four-year-old video of the CNRP leader telling an audience in Australia of his party’s work in grassroots organizing with advice from foreign experts. The government claimed this amounted to Kem Sokha “confessing” that a foreign country had instructed him on how to foment a “color revolution” in the country. Although authorities held him for one year, Kem Sokha’s lawyers said there was no progress in the government’s investigation, even though the court had questioned 13 witnesses, including various human rights activists, many of them claiming no relationship to Sokha. On September 10, the government transferred Sokha to what effectively amounted to house arrest, although there is no legal basis for “house arrest” under the country’s law. Authorities prevented Sokha from leaving an estimated three-block radius surrounding his house; meeting with former CNRP leaders, journalists, and foreigners; and participating in any political activity or gatherings.
In April the appeals court upheld the conviction of 11 CNRP activists on charges of insurrection and sentenced them from seven to 20 years in prison. Authorities charged the 11 with participating in a 2014 protest that resulted in injury to six protesters and 39 Daun Penh District security guards.
In September Hun Sen released former CNRP National Assembly member Sam An along with 13 other CNRP leaders through royal pardons. They were arrested as long ago as 2016, convicted on various charges seen as politically motivated, and sentenced to prison terms as long as 30 months.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The country has a system in place for hearing civil cases, and citizens are entitled to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Both administrative and judicial remedies generally were available; however, authorities often did not enforce court orders.
Forced collectivization and the relocation of much of the population under the Khmer Rouge left land ownership unclear. The land law states that any person who peacefully possessed private or state land (excluding public lands, such as parks) or inhabited state buildings without contest for five years prior to the 2001 promulgation of the law has the right to apply for a definitive title to that property. Most citizens, however, continued to lack the knowledge and means to obtain formal documentation of land ownership.
Provincial and district land offices continued to follow pre-2001 land registration procedures, which did not include accurate land surveys or opportunities for public comment. Land speculation, in the absence of clear title, fueled disputes in every province and increased tensions between poor rural communities and speculators. Some urban communities faced forced eviction to make way for commercial development projects.
Authorities continued to force inhabitants to relocate, although the number of cases declined in recent years. Some persons also used the threat of legal action or eviction to intimidate poor and vulnerable persons into selling their land at below-market values. As of June a local NGO reported 27 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions, affecting 1,647 families. Another NGO reported 39 new property-related conflicts between businesspersons and villagers, including accusations of land grabbing, theft of natural resources, economic land concessions, social land concessions, and evictions. Some of those evicted successfully contested the actions in court, but the majority of cases remained pending.