The injustice of Cambodian justice

Police are underpaid and short-staffed, while Cambodia’s patronage-based bureaucracy means that people tend to be promoted based on alliances, not competency or integrity.

According to the National Police, 2,969 crimes were committed last year, up from 2,817 in 2017. The number stands in contrast to the nation’s bulging prison population, however.

In November, Interior Minister Sar Kheng revealed that there were 31,008 inmates in Cambodia’s 28 prisons, of which almost 72% were being held in pre-trial detention.

That means there are roughly 190 prisoners per every 100,000 people, a bigger proportion than in most other Southeast Asian nations, and higher as a percentage than even authoritarian China.

The prison population has ballooned in recent years after the government launched in 2017 an anti-drug crackdown, similar in tone but not atrocity to the one Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has championed. As a result, the number of inmates rose by 30% in 2017 alone, mostly for drug-related offenses.

CRIME MAY 17, 2019

Op-Ed: Asia Time

The injustice of Cambodian justice

Cambodian police man a barricade outside a prison in Trapaing Phlong in Tbong Khmum province on September 11, 2017. Photo: AFP / Stringer

The injustice of Cambodian justice

The government aims to appear tough on crime, seen in a bulging prison population, but ranked second worst worldwide on a recent rule of law index

ByDAVID HUTT, PHNOM PENH

Ask any Cambodian about the key issues facing their country and chances are that crime will be near the top of the list. But on nearly all counts, the country’s justice system is failing.

According to the National Police, 2,969 crimes were committed last year, up from 2,817 in 2017. The number stands in contrast to the nation’s bulging prison population, however.

In November, Interior Minister Sar Kheng revealed that there were 31,008 inmates in Cambodia’s 28 prisons, of which almost 72% were being held in pre-trial detention.

That means there are roughly 190 prisoners per every 100,000 people, a bigger proportion than in most other Southeast Asian nations, and higher as a percentage than even authoritarian China.

The prison population has ballooned in recent years after the government launched in 2017 an anti-drug crackdown, similar in tone but not atrocity to the one Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has championed. As a result, the number of inmates rose by 30% in 2017 alone, mostly for drug-related offenses.

The problem is bigger than drugs, though. The Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2016, carried out by the Ministry of Planning’s National Institute of Statistics, found that 5% of surveyed households were victims of property crimes, such as theft and burglary.

Prisoners held at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

But anecdotal evidence suggests that almost all petty crime goes unreported to the police. A 2014 United National Development Program report on sexual violence even found that the vast majority of women and men rape victims never report the crime.

“People do not trust law implementation and the justice system in Cambodia,” said Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger and frequent contributor to the youth-centered group Politikoffee.

In recent months, the government has tried to be seen as tackling higher-level crimes.

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