Cambodians crave justice, but vigilantes fill the void

A young man, one shoe on and one off, sprints up the street. The mob gains ground, yanks his collar and shoves him to the ground. They kick and punch until he agrees to surrender to cops standing around the corner.

The man tried to steal a woman's purse, and this is how Cambodians frequently seek justice. He lives, but many alleged criminals do not.

Lynchings, or "people's courts," are occurring, says analysts, because the Cambodian courts and police are widely viewed as corrupt. "While police intervention saved some lives, they frequently refused to act or were complicit in the violence," said a 2003 Human Rights Watch report on Cambodia. Only two people have served prison time for participating in mob killings.

At least 88 such attacks occurred between mid-1999 and December 2003, according to the UN. Though Cambodia's poor law enforcement and a weak judiciary are often blamed for vigilantism, a recent UN report bluntly states, "this is an insufficient explanation." Judges are not properly trained, they lack professionalism and, according to the report, "are too ready to accommodate and too weak to withstand outside interference."

It doesn't help that Cambodia went without a functional government for nearly a year after the July 2003 national election. Only last week did rival political parties form a partnership again. And with that, they have raised hopes that the government might tackle many basic issues crippling this impoverished society.

A group of 17 NGOs has identified several steps toward judicial and legal reform, including an anticorruption commission, a national human rights commission, new penal and civil codes, and laws to ensure that all judges and police officers are non-partisan. Furthermore, government leaders should adhere to a code of ethics and be punished if they don't, according to the recommendations, which are part of a document titled "Rule of Law."

Mob violence is just one of the country's web of social ills. The UN's human rights representative for Cambodia has stated the country is "plagued by four basic evils - poverty, violence, corruption, and lawlessness."

Nationwide, Cambodians profess deep cynicism about their government. Ke Monin, a motorcycle taxi driver, struggles to feed his family on a dollar or two a day. Like others, he doesn't believe his government is fair. "Never. Never democracy," he says. "Other people, if they have money, they have hope.... I don't have."

Even some politicians agree. "The ruling party has destroyed, will continue to destroy, the hope of the Cambodian people," said Mu Sochua, minister of Women's and Veterans' Affairs under the outgoing government, after last year's election.

In Cambodia, money is a powerful influence in a dysfunctional justice system, many aid workers say. "Perpetrators, especially if they are powerful or wealthy, are rarely arrested or convicted," notes the human rights group Licadho, one of the 17 groups seeking judicial reform. Criminals often pay off the cops and courts, they say.

"The reality is quite different from what the law says," says Nop Sarin Srey Roth of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center. Her group helps bring rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking cases to trial. But criminals can buy judges, she says, and the guilty regularly go free.

But there is some good news. The UN's human rights report pins hope on the Royal School for Training Judges and Prosecutors, which opened in November. It's the only professional training offered by the government to new students and the only continuing education for judges already on the job. The report praises the school's students for their understanding of ethics and the rule of law.

Some say Cambodia is already reforming. Late last year, Ouch Borith, Cambodia's ambassador to the UN, told the world body that the government had organized seminars and training for police and military officers, that mob killings had ended.

But his words were premature. In June two men reportedly lured a teenager to a rice paddy, tried to steal his motorbike and attacked him with a knife. A mob beat the culprits to death.

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