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Justice system failing child victims: experts

A nine-year-old rape victim waits in a Battambang province police station last month.
A nine-year-old rape victim waits in a Battambang province police station last month. Athena Zelandonii

Justice system failing child victims: experts

Cambodia’s justice system often fails to support children who are victims of and witnesses to crime, many of whom are so terrified to appear in court that they’re unable to give testimony, children’s rights experts said yesterday.

“When children are abused, they often respond by repressing and fragmenting memories,” Micaela Cronin, CEO of Hagar International, said during the launch of a new guide to train lawyers and caregivers working with child witnesses and victims. “That’s why it’s so important that people working in the justice system be sensitive to children.”

The new guide, released by Hagar and UNICEF, aims to give adults in Cambodia the tools to protect and communicate with children in a justice system that can often increase the stress of traumatised children.

Children are occasionally transported to trial in the same vehicles or made to wait in the same room as their abuser, experts said.

Meanwhile, overworked lawyers often forget that children have the right to ask for a screen to block them from seeing their abuser, or to speak through video technology instead of being present in the courtroom, explained Debora Petworth, a juvenile law expert with Hagar.

Demanding these rights be protected is part of the lawyer’s responsibility, Petworth said. But many lawyers say the video technology is unavailable in provincial courts as they don’t have the extra rooms in which to set it up, or because officials don’t understand the technology.

But Appeals Court prosecutor Tan Senarong said the negligence can’t be blamed on a lack of technical skills. “That’s just an excuse,” Senarong said. “It’s as easy as operating an iPhone.”

Asked whether the higher courts could pressure provincial courts to begin offering the video option to children, Senarong said the Ministry of Justice could “take action” if a complaint were made in writing.

But some experts say the government has done little to ensure the technology is available.

“Anecdotally, this [screens and video technology] doesn’t seem to be offered very often,” said Billy Tai, a legal analyst in Cambodia. “And I haven’t seen any push on the part of the government to enforce this.”

Members of UNICEF say they hope the new guidelines will help address these issues.

“We want these guidelines to be mainstream in the Cambodian justice system,” said Debora Comini, Cambodia’s UNICEF director.

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