In a bulletin published on Wednesday, the NGO Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said that the rights of suspects to a fair trial have not always been respected by the Court of Appeal.
Specifically, the CCHR stated that the rights to defense attorneys and the right to be present at appeal court hearings were not fully respected.
As part of a fair trial project, CCHR tracked 218 cases involving 316 suspects before the Court of Appeals from January to December last year.
The NGO said one positive thing it had witnessed was that all suspects in criminal cases and juvenile suspects had defense attorneys.
But 80 people, or 25% of suspects in misdemeanor cases, had no defense lawyer.
Citing Article 301 of the Penal Code, CCHR said the right to a defense attorney is mandatory for felony charges and minor suspects.
“While this means that Cambodian law adequately respects the right to legal representation of minors and those accused of crimes, it falls short of international human rights standards for cases involving an offense other than ‘a crime. [for example, a misdemeanour].
“International human rights law makes no distinction between levels of offence, and instead requires that the right to legal representation be universally applicable, regardless of the offence,” he said.
Regarding the absence of suspects from the hearings, the CCHR said that 59 suspects out of 316, or 18%, were not present during the monitoring period, or were tried in absentia.
Such a practice does not comply with international human rights standards, he added.
In some cases, the absences were due to the fact that the suspects had not been given a trial date or could not afford to attend court.
“Worryingly, CCHR monitoring found six defendants for whom there was a conflict of interest. Specifically, the lawyer represented multiple defendants in the same case. For example, the defendants provided their answers to other defendants during the hearing,” he said.
CCHR recommended improving transportation services for suspects and delaying hearings when suspects are not present.
Judges should also postpone hearings if suspects do not have defense attorneys, regardless of the nature of their charges, the CCHR said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the government’s ability to help the poor in these situations is limited because it lacks money, human resources and lawyers.
He said lawyers sometimes represent multiple suspects in the same case because of these shortcomings.
In Cambodia, only suspects in criminal cases and minors are legally required to have a lawyer, he said.
“Even though we lack resources, we are increasing our legal aid every year.
“For example, this year we have 1.6 billion riels [$400,000] to spend on aid, an increase from 1.2 billion riels. Previously, we only had 900 million riels,” he said.
Malin said the number of defense attorneys for the poor has also increased to more than 300 this year.
He said he expects the budget for legal aid and lawyers to increase, in line with the government’s ability to help the poor, women and ethnic minority groups.