Hagar Cambodia and UNICEF launch report on Voices of Child Victims and Witnesses in Cambodia’s Criminal Justice System

The first study of its kind documenting the experiences of child victims in Cambodia’s courts and recommendations for developing a child-friendly system. 

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA: An unprecedented study of 103 respondents, includfront covering 54 child victims and witnesses has found that Cambodia’s criminal justice system needs to make immediate changes in order to be child friendly. The study, ‘A System Just for Children’, was conducted by Hagar field researchers in conjunction with UNICEF.

The study documents the experiences of children who go through the Cambodian criminal justice system as victims and witnesses with the aim of supporting the development of criminal court procedures that more fully reflect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).

The research deliberately gave priority to the voices of children, seeking to understand child perspectives and support their right to be active participants in line with Article 12 of the UNCRC.  The research found treatment of children by adult authorities ranged from exceptional sensitivity to outright derision.  Generally, children described being ‘fearful’ or ‘very fearful’ at various stages in the criminal justice process.

“This study is the first time the experiences of children who are going through Cambodia’s justice system have been sought and systematically recorded” says Hagar Cambodia Country Director, Steve Penfold. “While there has been some improvement in the past years, this research suggests that too often children are poorly protected, unnecessarily exposed to their perpetrator and inadequately supported by the current justice system. This study makes recommendations that could ensure children can provide evidence in safety and with confidence, so that justice can be done.”

Key Research Findings

The police extorted us, demanding money before they worked.
A System Just for Children highlights police treatment of child victims and witnesses. While children generally felt the police behaved ‘normally’ toward them, 10 respondents said they were treated disrespectfully or were mocked or ignored by the authorities. In 11% of cases, the child met the perpetrator at the police station and 20% of respondents reported paying money to police before the case moved forward.

The Courtroom Experience

The study found that the court process was rarely child friendly. Strangers were often present in the court room and in one instance, media representatives were in attendance during the trial. Children often had to sit through other cases, sometimes being exposed to violent crimes. No participant reported seeing or using a child-friendly waiting room.

“Being in the same room is too close. I was afraid immediately when I saw the perpetrator.”

Nearly every child interviewed found themselves exposed to the perpetrator on the way to or in the courtroom. In most cases the child was two or three meters from the perpetrator during the hearing and in some cases, even travelled to the court house in the same vehicle.

“I do not know what is happening in my case”

Many children were given little information about what was happening in their case and 10% of the children interviewed did not know clearly if their case was finished or not.  It was rare for children or their guardians to get copies of their statements or any other documentation relating to the case.

Demeanour of Judges and Lawyers

While social service and legal aid staff largely agree that judges’ demeanour towards children in court has improved over the years, there is still room for improvement. The court environment remains frightening for children and in some cases, the judge asked inappropriate questions or laughed at the victim, particularly if the witness was an older girl or boy. Defence lawyers sometimes acted inappropriately, including trying to confuse, trick or intimidate child witnesses. Often, it was the child’s lawyer, not the judge, who requested such behaviour stop.

“I am still fearful that the man’s relatives will take revenge on me for sending him to jail.”

The research demonstrates the safety concerns children and their representatives have after the trial. There were apprehensions about whether prison sentences would be served and when the perpetrator would appear in the community again. Court authorities provided no comment about this and there seemed to be no clear responsibilities for child victim or witness safety during or post-trial.

Further Findings

  • Children have no choice about their lawyer and typically have very little time with them; the first introduction is often on the steps of the courtroom or a day or two before the hearing.
  • Court preparation for children is inadequate; no standard curriculum or tools are available.
  • Children demonstrated a variety of somatic responses to court proceedings including cold hands and feet, abnormally fast heartbeat, dizziness and stomach and headaches.
  • Little attention was paid to children’s feelings after the trial; typically no debriefing was offered and most children did not appeal the verdict as they were not aware this was possible.
  • Cases ranged from 14 months to four years, the length due to non-apprehension of the perpetrator, appeals, changes of lawyers and rescheduling court dates due to lack of translation resources.

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About Hagar

Hagar is a specialist aftercare agency that works with survivors of human rights abuse such as gender-based violence and human trafficking in Cambodia, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Hagar’s origins are in Cambodia, having been established in 1994.

For more information/interviews please contact:

Legal and Protection Unit
Hagar Cambodia
legalandprotection@hagarinternational.org