CRIME, POLICE AND THE JUSTICE SYSTEM IN CAMBODIA

CRIME IN CAMBODIA

Cambodia remains a lawless place. Drug dealers, sex traffickers and gangsters reportedly run Phnom Penh; bandits and rogue soldiers control many roads at night; bill collectors hire private executioners to collect money; and assassins can reportedly be hired for as little as $20 a hit. No one is immune. In 1999, the American ambassador was mugged at gunpoint as he walked home at night. Often times murder victims have connections with the opposition political parties. The Yakuza has reportedly set up operations in Phnom Penh. There are many stories about wives buying nitric acid an pouring it in the heads of their husband’s mistresses.

One of the main problems in Cambodia is the prevalence of weapons in the country. Guns are everywhere. In some places AK-47 can be purchased at local markets for as little as $50 and gun fire is so common that people have gotten used it. There are so many guns in Phnom Penh that some businesses have signs that read, "Please Check Your Weapons." According to sources, weapons used during the civil war have been smuggled through southern Thailand to Southeast Asian countries. These weapons are often used for crimes in Cambodia. [Source: Yuji Yoshikat, Yomiuri Shimbun June 18, 2005 ]

The rates of murders, armed robberies and kidnapings are believed to be high and rising. No one knows what the murder and crime rates are because the government doesn't keep accurate crime statistics. Everyday newspapers run pictures of murder victims and print stories of lynchings by vigilante mobs, grenades thrown into the homes, and people being mowed down by automatic gun fire as they work in rice paddies.

Cambodia is a major transshipment center for drugs and counterfeit money. In the early 2000s lots of North-Korean-made counterfeit $100 were in circulation in Cambodia. At one time they were on sale in the central market in Phnom Penh and people stashed there pockets with them to give out if they got mugged at night.

Underwear-Clad Burglars and Mugging Attempt of Princess Eugenie

In June 2005, Associated Press reported: “Robbers who strike while wearing only underwear, their bodies slathered with oil to make them slippery and harder to catch, have resurfaced in Cambodia. Two unidentified, underwear-clad burglars robbed homes in the southern province of Takeo on May 30, The Cambodia Daily quoted area police chief Sok Tum as saying. Police thought they had quashed the "underwear gang" last year, the report said. They apparently wear only underwear in an attempt to make themselves harder to identify. Residents had started a community watch program to prevent such crimes, Sok Tum said. But "the underwear thieves resurfaced in my region because the villagers stopped," he said. [Source: Associated Press, June 6, 2005]

Princess Eugenie's protection officers were forced to come to her rescue when she was targeted by muggers on holiday in Cambodia. Andrew Pierce wrote in The Telegraph: Queen Elizabeth’s “granddaughter, 19, was with two girlfriends when a well dressed and well spoken man came alongside them as they were walking back to their hotel at night in Phnom Penh. After making conversation with the group he suddenly snatched one of the girl's handbags and made off down the street. But he did not get very far as the Princess's two protection officers were only yards away. They gave chase and rugby-tackled him to the ground. The incident happened 100 yards from the hotel in Phnom Penh where the Princess was returning after a night out. [Source: Andrew Pierce, The Telegraph, May 4, 2009 ::]

“An accomplice of the thief started hurling rocks at the detectives as they grappled with the man. The detectives decided to let him go rather than run the risk that the Princess might be hurt. Buckingham Palace declined to comment on the incident but one source said that the detectives had acted with the interests of Princess Eugenie who is sixth in line to the throne."Once they had retrieved the purse they decided that it was best to get the princess back to the hotel. She would always be their principal concern," the source said.” ::

Murder in Cambodia

The circumstances for murder in Cambodia are sometimes quite different than those found in Western countries. A former Khmer Rouge fighter named Heanh Hun, for example, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for murdering his friend and carving out the victim’s liver and eating it. According to a local newspaper, “Heanh Hun confessed in front of the court that on September 23, 2000, he invited his friend Khin Khoeun to drink whiskey as his house. While drinking, they had a small argument and Heanh Hun took out gun...and shot Khn Khoeun four times.”

The Jaria, an ethnic group in Rattanakiri Province in northeast Cambodia, are very poor. In the early 2000s, a teenage member of the group was charged with murder after shooting and killing his younger brother and sister who were starving to death. The teenager had been left to care for his siblings after his parents died and decided to shoot them after his efforts to beg for food was fruitless.

Many murders are drive by killings carried out by gunmen on motorcycles. The motives for many murders is unclear: revenge, maybe, robbery, more likely. One Cambodian journalist told Newsweek, "Nearly everyone has a gun, so you've got to be careful. If you are riding around on a fancy motorbike chances are armed robbers will shoot you to get it."

Crime Against Tourists

Since 1991, tourists have been abducted in Cambodia. In 1994, a woman from North Carolina was kidnaped and released after being held for 42 days. The same year three Britons, two Australians, and a Frenchman were kidnaped and killed by their captors.

On July 26, 1994, Khmer Rouge guerrillas ambushed the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville train with mines in southern Cambodian countryside, near the of Kampot, where the railway winds along the sea at the edge of the Elephant mountains. The guerillas gunned down 11 Cambodian and three Vietnamese passengers and abducted scores of people, including three young Western backpackers—David Wilson of Australia, Mark Slater of Britain and Jean-Michel Braquet of France, all tourists in their late 20s

The three backpackers were held for ransom for two months while the government attempted to negotiate their release. The hostage-takers demanded $150,000. Ultimately the negotiations amounted to nothing and the backpackers were killed by blows to their heads the orders of Gen. Sam Bith, a Khmer Rouge leader. Their bodies were found in October 1994 in a shallow grave after the government raided a Khmer Rouge camp in the Vine Mountains 150 mile south of Phnom Penh. In 1994, Sam Bith defected to the government and was made a general in the Cambodian army.

The murders were reportedly carried out by Nuon Paet, who served in the Khmer Rouge under Sam Bith. In 1998, Nuon Paet was captured when he was lured to the Phnom Penh with the promise of a lucrative business deal. "Police played trick to bring the tiger from his lair," Hun Sen boasted. The move was seen an effort by Hun Sen to earn legitimacy in the eyes of western nations.

Two-Year-Old Killed in Hostage Crisis at an International School in Siem Reap

In June 2005, a two-year-old Canadian boy was killed when four Cambodian men entered an international school in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap, near the tourist site of Angkor Wat, and took several dozen children hostage. The Daily Mail reported: “Seventy students and three teachers held by the gunmen at the the Siem Reap International School in north western Cambodia. Hours after the siege began, witnesses heard shots being fired inside the school before police announced the child had been killed and four hostages takers arrested. The other hostages were freed. According to one report, two hostage takers were killed. [Source: Daily Mail, June 16, 2005 ==]

“The hostage crisis unfolded at Cambodia's tourism hub of Siem Reap, near its famed Angkor temples and home to many expatriates, and quickly drew concern from governments around the region. Reports claimed that up to 15 nationalities were represented among the hostages, including Japanese, Australian and American. British vice-consul Gary Bonham told BBC Breakfast that he understood the masked men had taken children from kindergarten classes one and two, totalling some 24 youngsters. He added: "The gunmen have made demands of the Cambodian police in that they want 30,000 US dollars in cash, a 12-seater minibus and additional weapons." The gang's cash demands puzzled Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who speculated whether the hostage-takers were "rogue elements" hired to hurt tourism in Siem Reap. =

Chea Sokhom, the leader of the gang that took the children hostage at the school, said he wanted revenge on a former employer. The BBC reported: “A gang leader has been given a life sentence for taking hostage 28 school children in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap and killing one of them. Chea Sokhom had denied killing the two-year-old Canadian boy, insisting he was shot from outside the school, which police had surrounded at the time. An accomplice also got a life sentence and six others got up to 20 years. [Source: BBC, December 9, 2005 ~~]

“Chea, 23, said he had planned to seize the children of an ex-employer, who had publicly slapped him for arriving late. The defendants were on trial for charges including conspiracy to commit premeditated murder, kidnapping, illegal detainment of persons for ransom, and illegal use of weapons. Four of the group received 20-year sentences while another two got two years each and were fined around $250 for illegally selling weapons. ~~

“Chea said he was carrying a handgun while three accomplices had knives. Chea said the motive for the raid was his anger towards his South Korean employer, a businessman living in Siem Reap. "I was so angry with my Korean boss who slapped me in the face. My ambition was to kidnap the Korean children for ransom," he told the court. Chea admitted grabbing two-year-old Maxim Michalik during the stand-off with police outside the school building, "but I did not shoot him". "He was shot dead in the head by an AK-47 bullet fired from outside," he told the court. Police arrested the men as they tried to escape from the school in a van. The men were then attacked and beaten by angry residents and parents. ~~

Survivors of the School Hostage Crisis in Siem Reap

The Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Marina, the 4-year-old daughter of Yasuyuki Furuyama, 37, managed to escape from Siem Reap International School soon after police forces engaged in a ferocious firefight with the hostage-takers. As Furuyama and his Cambodian wife Sarath Phang held Marina in their arms, the girl burst into tears. "I'm really relieved," said Furuyama, who looked completely worn out as he held Marina. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 18, 2005 }{]

“He first heard the news when his brother-in-law, who went to the school to pick up Marina at about 11:30 a.m., phoned to say the school had been taken over by a group of gunmen. Furuyama rushed to the school, waiting anxiously for news outside the front gates. At about 3 p.m., he heard children burst into tears as a fusillade of gunshots erupted in the school. A few minutes later, his brother-in-law--who had rushed to the school--returned holding little Marina. }{

“Marina told her father about one incident that happened in the classroom where she was held hostage by the gunmen. Having been asked her nationality by the gunmen, Marina immediately answered she was Cambodian. About 30 percent of the pupils of the school are Cambodian. "She could have been abducted if she had said she was Japanese. Just thinking what might have happened if she hadn't used her head sends shivers down my spine," Furuyama said. "This is not a town where heinous crimes occur. I was completely assured because the school always has security guards on duty," he said. }{

“Hiroko Meas, 30, had to walk around the school looking for her son for more than half an hour after the hostages escaped from the school before she found 6-year-old Takumi safe in a house opposite the school's front gates. Takumi, sitting on a chair in front of the house, broke into tears and ran into his mother's arms when he spotted her, saying, "Mommy, I was so scared." "The kidnappers had guns. I crouched down and was sitting by the wall," Takumi said. }{

“Traces of the shoot-out between the police and the hostage-takers were evident in the school compound. Yasuo Takatama, a 56-year-old freelance photographer visiting the city, reported seeing bloodstains on stairways and the courtyard in the school. There were also reports of a large pool of blood on the floor of the first-floor classroom where the children were believed to have been held. }{

Police in Cambodia

Cambodia’s police are notoriously corrupt and inept. They are known for refusing to investigate high profile crimes because of their implications and offering money for leads but then refusing to follow up on the tips. High profile crimes involving members of the government are ignored and not investigated at all.

“Investigations” often consist of beatings and torture sessions used to extract confessions. According to the human rights group Licadho the police whip suspect with wire, suffocate them with plastic bags and beat them in bed with hoes.

In the early 2000s, Cambodia opened its first Japanese-style koban (small neighborhood police post) in Phnom Penh. The facilty cost $20,000 to build and was financed by the owner of a Japanese toy museum. It was manned around the clock by police who were given lectures by two Japanese polcie officers before the koban opened.

Vigilantes in Cambodia

Reports of mobs taking the law into their own hands, sometimes lynching suspected criminals on the spot, were common in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The practice became so widespread that the United Nations asked the Cambodian government to do something about it. In the early 2000s, for example, a mob of angry villagers dragged two suspected murderers from a police car in northwest Cambodia and beat them to death. The victims had been charged with the theft of a motorcycle and the killing of two villagers

There are many stories of angry mobs beating young men to death for stealing motorbikes. There have even been reports of thieves being beaten up in temples, with Buddhist monks joining in. One Westerner saw a mob beat up a man accused of stealing a motorcycle and was shocked to giggling monks in the crowd of onlookers and police standing around doing nothing. The Westerner intervened. Cambodians were equally shocked by his behavior.

Describing a what amounted to a vigilante attack by police on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh in 1998, Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker, “We watched the police snatch the driver out of the his van. The movement was so abrupt that for an instance the man appeared to be flying over their heads, and then just as rapidly he straightened more or less upright and fell among them. He didn’t hit the ground. He couldn’t. Blows kept him aloft. He was getting clobbered—pitched around a narrow ring of cops by uppercuts and downward smashes...pistol whips and baton jabs...Three seconds more the man dropped....The police stood around.” One “explained the dead men had caused an accident and fled from the scene.”

Describing a what amounted to a vigilante attack by police on Monivong Boulevard in Phnom Penh in 1998, Philip Gourevitch wrote in the New Yorker, “We watched the police snatch the driver out of the his van. The movement was so abrupt that for an instance the man appeared to be flying over their heads, and then just as rapidly he straightened more or less upright and fell among them. He didn’t hit the ground. He couldn’t. Blows kept him aloft. He was getting clobbered—pitched around a narrow ring of cops by uppercuts and downward smashes...pistol whips and baton jabs...Three seconds more the man dropped....The police stood around.” One “explained the dead men had caused an accident and fled from the scene.”

Vigilantism is seen as a symptom of a failed justice system and a desire by people to take the law into their own hands because the legal system can’t help them. One diplomat told the New York Times, “It’s ‘instant do justice.’ Since there is no justice. I’ll do it myself. And the police are often present and encourage people to do this.” Vigilante mobs have been accused of using torture.

Cambodian Justice System

The Cambodian judicial system is disturbingly inadequate and has been criticized for being weak, corrupt and susceptible to political manipulation. Most Cambodians live with few rights and little recourse against injustices. The American ambassador to Cambodia Joseph A. Mussomeli said: “The government in general tries to keep tight control over the judiciary and anything that could have negative consequences.”

In the 1970s, nearly all the lawyers and judges were killed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1997, there were only 70 judges in the entire country, and many of them were poorly trained. As of 2001, only 21 of Cambodia’s judges had finished law school. Over time the rules of civil society began taking hold in Cambodia. People who were not paid their wages found they could strike and people who had toxic waste on their property could seek legal help.

Courts are politically subservient, and the well-connected can do what they want. Suspects are routinely denied due process; police use torture to secure confessions; judges make decisions based on bribes and favors; women prisoners are released because they pretty; the rich routinely buy their freedom and use ownership and titles to exploit the poor and take their land. Opposition MP Son Chhay told Australia radio in 2011: "We do not trust our courts. We believe in many cases the court hardly investigates the case. Usually they just get evidence from the police and then based on that they will give a verdict. Many cases are based on corruption and also the influence of the government."

When there are laws they often exist only on paper. Enforcement is spotty, loopholes are easy to exploit, and corruption and bribery to skirt them are common. The well connected can pretty much do whatever they want. A surprisingly high number of criminals are set free after they are arrested because of “lack of evidence.” Many are believed to have been released after the payment of bribes. Incompetence is also a problem. The Royalist Chao Sambath received a 20-year death sentence after he was already dead.

The availability of guns in Cambodia contributes to an atmosphere of lawlessness that also benefits from inefficient and corrupt law enforcement, and the immunity from prosecution usually enjoyed by people with wealth and influence. Describing security in his country, one Cambodian truck driver said, "It's safe here, not like other places. If you're caught stealing something here, they don't pit you in jail; they just kill you."

Cambodia Judiciary Branch

The judicial branch is independent from the rest of the government, as specified by the Cambodian Constitution. The highest court of judicial branch is the Supreme Council of the Magistracy. Other, lower courts also exist. Until 1997, Cambodia did not have a judicial branch of government despite the nation's Constitution requiring one. The main duties of the judiciary are to prosecute criminals, settle lawsuits, and, most importantly, protect the freedoms and rights of Cambodian citizens. However, in reality, the judicial branch in Cambodia is highly corrupt and often serves as a tool of the executive branch to silence civil society and its leaders. There are currently 17 justices on the Supreme Council. [Source: Wikipedia]

After the Khmer Rouge was ousted in 1979 the administration of justice was in the hands of people's revolutionary courts that were set up hastily in Phnom Penh and in other major provincial cities. A new law dealing with the organization of courts and with the Office of Public Prosecutor was promulgated in February 1982. Under this law, the People's Supreme Court became the highest court of the land. *

The judicial system comprises the people's revolutionary courts, the military tribunals, and the public prosecutors' offices. The Council of Ministers, on the recommendations of local administrative bodies called people's revolutionary committees, appoints judges and public prosecutors. Two or three people's councillors (the equivalents of jurors or of assessors) assist the judges, and they have the same power as the judges in passing sentence. *

Political Manipulation of Cambodia's Legal System

In 2006, Seth Mydans wrote in the New York Times: “A recent wave of convictions of Mr. Hun Sen's political opponents on libel and related charges has highlighted the role of the courts in Cambodia as a political arm of the prime minister. "Clearly the way the judiciary is being used as an instrument against critics now is a real problem," said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based monitoring group. "It shows the problems for the trials and the problem for the United Nations to be mixed up with these people." [Source: Seth Mydans, New York Times, January 23, 2006]

In 2009, Tim Johnston wrote in the Washington Post: “A heightened crackdown on journalists and opposition activists by Cambodia's leaders has provoked new concern that the government is engaging in widespread abuse of the nation's legal system to muzzle its detractors. Newspaper editor Hang Chakra is serving a one-year sentence in Phnom Penh's notorious Prey Sar prison for articles that alleged corruption among government officials. Opposition activist Moeung Sonn, who heads the Khmer Civilization Foundation, fled the country last month after being given a two-year sentence because government officials feared unrest when he questioned whether a new lighting system would damage the revered Angkor Wat temple. Last week, a court heard charges against Ho Vann, a member of parliament from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party who is accused of slandering 22 generals by questioning their academic qualifications. [Source: Tim Johnston, Washington Post, July 29, 2009]

Mu Sochua, another opposition member of parliament, was accused of defaming Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen. In a lawsuit, she accused Hun Sen of calling her "strong leg" -- a term considered derogatory in Khmer culture -- in a speech. When he declined to apologize, she called a news conference and declared that his comment was an insult to all Cambodian women. That provoked a countersuit from Hun Sen. The courts have thrown out her lawsuit, but Hun Sen's is ongoing."I'm sure I will be found guilty, unless there is some magic in the air, and I don't feel that it is," Mu Sochua said.

The cases have caused growing concern among human rights activists about Cambodia's legal system, which has long been accused of political bias. "The Cambodian government is imposing its most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years," Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. The case against Mu Sochua, a mother of three and former minister for women and veterans affairs, has brought the concern to a head because she is the first person to challenge Hun Sen so openly. "If he allowed Mu Sochua to challenge him, other people might go down the same path. It is to make sure a second person won't try the same thing in the future," said Son Chhay, another outspoken opposition member of parliament.

Mu Sochua is fighting her legal battle alone. Her attorney withdrew last month after he came under government pressure, provoking a protest from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. "The government kept on slamming him with more and more penalties, and he was facing the end of his career," Mu Sochua said. "I am not going to put another lawyer through that torture." The opposition fears that he is destroying fragile institutions that have taken years to build. "What is really detrimental to Cambodia as a whole is that because he wants to make a point as a man, he is destroying so much we have invested in nation-building," Mu Sochua said. "It is not me on trial, but the judiciary of Cambodia."

Analysts said Hun Sen could be using the courts to get rid of the opposition. "He wants to put them out of business," said David Chandler, a history professor at Monash University in Australia. "The whole concept of pluralism hasn't got any roots in Cambodia. The opposition is almost, by definition, disloyal." Son Chhay said the recent crackdown is a symptom of a government that is failing to address some of the pressing issues facing the country, including corruption, land seizures and economic stagnation. "Although they control the institutions, they can't allow activists or the opposition to spread the issues -- that could bring disaster. Like many dictatorial regimes in the region, because they are unable to solve the problems, they resort to all measures to control the people and shut them up," Son Chhay said.

Reforms of the Justice System in Cambodia

In 1999, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation into the court system and had many criminals re-arrested after a surprisingly high number of criminals were set free after they were arrested because of “lack of evidence.” Many are believed to have been released after the payment of bribes.

Legal and judicial reforms have mostly been slow and disappointing. There are a lot of international NGOs in Cambodia and many of them are involved in improving human rights for ordinary people.

The human right group Licadho gave out 500,000 copies of the Cambodian constitution. One member of the group told the New York Times, “In 1992, people didn’t even know that confiscation of their land is a violation of their rights. Now if people come and want to arrest them, they ask to see the warrant of arrest, or if their daughter ir reaped by an official, they know they can go complain.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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