A quarter of the 453 defendants who were tried at the Appeal Court between November 1, 2017 and February 28 this year were not represented by a lawyer, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) claimed on Thursday.
CCHR revealed the findings – which were collected through the monitoring of 301 criminal trials seen at the Appeal Court as part of the organisation’s “Fair Trial Rights Project” – in its latest newsletter.
The project aimed to analyse each trial’s adherence to international and Cambodian fair trial standards, as well as the adherence to each defendant’s right to be present at their own trial and their right to legal representation.
CCHR recorded that 84 defendants were not present at their own trial, reporting that in most cases the defendant’s absence during hearings was due to the lack of transportation from the detention centre to the Court.
CCHR also noted that there were no recorded cases of juveniles or those charged with felonies failing to receive legal representation.
“Legal procedures can be complex and confusing, and without a legal representative an individual is likely to be at a disadvantage, perhaps lacking knowledge of the law and the court system and without someone to represent them in court,” CCHR said.
The right for a defendant to be present at their own trial, it added, is also “enshrined in national as well as international legislation”.
“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 interests of justice,” it said.
CCHR recommended that the Appeal Court and the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons “coordinate with each other to address any logistical and communication issues regarding the locations of defendants”, such as by ensuring that information on the transfer of detained persons is routinely sent to prosecutors.
Moreover, CCHR called on Appeal Court judges to delay trials if the defendant is not present, unless they have officially transferred defending rights to their legal team.
It also urged that “judges should respect the right to legal representation universally, irrespective of the type of crime, as provided under international law”.
Touch Tharith, Appeal Court spokesperson, said on Thursday that the court always sends information regarding the date and time of the appeal hearings one month in advance to the prison in which the defendant is detained.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin said CCHR’s findings did not reflect Cambodian fair trial standards, noting that in the Kingdom “only criminal and juvenile cases require the presence of defence lawyers”.
“Other than those cases, it depends on the defendant. If they need a lawyer, they can seek one by themselves. But if they are poor, the state has the right to provide them a lawyer. Or if they don’t want a lawyer, that’s their right too,” Malin said.
As to a defendant’s presence at their own trial, Malin said CCHR did not dig deeper in each case it observed. In some cases, he argued, the defendants might have transferred their defending rights to their lawyers.
Responding to CCHR’s recommendations, Malin said the ministry was improving the “fair trial principles” focusing on providing legal assistance to defendants.
He said a working team was studying other countries’ legal practices and international fair trial standards.
“We want to provide legal assistance for all cases and types of crimes, whether it is criminal, civil, trade or labour, and also at all stages of court procedures, not just in a hearing. However, we also need to consider the Cambodian context and resources,” he said.