Almost half of the prisoners who appealed their sentences in a 16-month period between 2017 and 2019 were either not allowed to be present at their hearings or had no lawyers to represent them, a rights group said in a report Thursday.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said it monitored 301 trials involving 453 appellants between the start of November 2017 and the end of February 2019 and found that 84 of the prisoners (about 19 percent) were not present at their appeals and a further 111 (25 percent) had no lawyers.
The cumulative 44 percent of appellants accordingly did not have their rights to fair trial adequately respected by the legal system, CCHR said. It noted that Cambodians have the right to be present at their trial and to be represented legally under Cambodia’s Constitution and laws as well as the country’s international treaty obligations.
“The Code of Criminal Procedure affords defendants the right to appear in person at their trial and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights requires that trials are held in the presence of the accused,” the CCHR report said. “The trials in absentia are not impermissible under international human rights law, however they may be permitted in exceptional circumstances and when it is required in the interest of justice.”
Appeal Court spokesman Touch Tharith declined to comment, explaining that he had not seen the report. Chin Malin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, said he had not seen the report either, but was open to accepting constructive criticism.
“In general, the ministry will look at these reports to find out how accurate they are based on legal aspects and on reality and if there are clear legal grounds, we will consider it in order to reform our programs to react to that shortfall,” Malin said.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer who has often represented civil society and opposition figures and been critical of the legal system, said many in the courts had grown accustomed to perfunctorily trying cases without defendants present.
“As our law states that you can be sentenced ‘in absentia,’ it makes the presence of the accused become not important,” Sam Oeun said of the culture adopted by many judges. “But, if we consider human rights, their presence is very important — because it can make the court’s understanding [of their case] be accurate.”
CCHR said the Appeal Court must work harder to ensure that information regarding the date and time of appeal hearings are sent to the correct correctional centers around the country where defendants are detained. While each province has its own court, all appeals go through the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh.
It added that judges at the Appeal Court should postpone any hearings where the defendant is not present unless they have unequivocally and formally waived their rights to be present or represented by a lawyer. Prisons officials must also be more proactive in ensuring convicts are transported to court on hearing days, it said.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)