This blog post is written by Lale Kuzu, former CCHR International Intern.
As a law graduate from the U.K, I have often found observing the hushed stillness of the Court of Appeal as daunting as sitting in a head teacher’s office regardless of whether you are present for discipline or reward. I was struck by that same feeling in the presence of the judges at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal, with the judges in red robes with silk white neckties seated in grand high chairs peering down at the crowd below it.
This feeling of both fear and respect was present until the moment eleven defendants dressed in orange uniforms were escorted through the door, each waiting to be un-cuffed before being seated in the two rows in front of me. The hustle and bustle that accompanied the eleven defendants, with their friends and families in the aisle next to them, prison guards sitting with them and lawyers hovering behind them transported me to a whole new court room.
In four hours, eleven defendants’ cases were heard in one courtroom by three judges and one prosecutor. The eleven defendants were not co-defendants but each waiting their turn to stand the dock in front of the judges. Instead of calling out the defendants’ name to confirm the details of the defendant before him, the judge instead called out to identify and call out the defendants whose case they were about to hear.
Perhaps the most shocking of all was that I did not notice the two adolescent teens lost in the crowd of orange until I saw their faces as they took their stands on the dock. Although I had read countless reports and statistics about the problem of juvenile justice especially that of children being tried with adults; the theory does not prepare you for the reality. Both were found in possession of illegal drugs and had been found guilty of distribution, each receiving 2 years in prison and a 1.5 million Riel fine. Both were represented by a lawyer but as in all other cases, only spoke during the final arguments. For 20 minutes, the judges interrogated the two boys as to their intention, a mere 20 minutes to decide their futures.
Trials in the Court of First Instance are held in public; out of the many fair trial rights that are not adhered to, this is a right that appears to be adhered to the most, which is why it is essential that we use this right. It is eye opening and at times eye watering to watch, like most things in Cambodia; to observe, is an experience in itself and for someone to be watching makes a difference to both the defendants and the judges.