Government legal aid team to meet

(Phnom Penh) : A voluntary legal aid team created by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month to represent poor women in the Kingdom is set to convene for the first time on Tuesday.

Hun Sen ordered the establishment of the group on February 18 to defend women who cannot afford to pay for representation.

Working under the prime minister’s direct supervision, the lawyers would not receive any salary from the government but would receive expenses when designated to help women in rural areas.

Hun Sen assigned the government’s chief lawyer, Ky Tech, to lead the team with a budget of some $500,000.

Tech told local reporter on Monday that the group comprises 67 lawyers, with two based in each province and six in Phnom Penh. Another six lawyers would be on standby to help their colleagues across the country when needed.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to have at least two lawyers in each province. We have arranged as such and on Tuesday afternoon we will convene at the Council of Ministers to announce the launch of our operations,” he said.

When asked how the legal aid team would reach out to poor women, especially in rural areas, Tech said: “We will establish a communication system across the country that makes it convenient for them to reach us.

“In each province, they can contact two lawyers who are stationed there. They can also contact our office in Phnom Penh directly,” he said.

Tech said the team had already received more than 10 requests for legal representations, mostly from garment workers across the capital.

Prior to the establishment of the voluntary legal team, Prime Minister Hun Sen had also urged relevant institutions to find ways to help female prisoners with their legal cases.

He called for speedy proceedings and their release if they have corrected themselves or if they are found not guilty.

Ky Tech said there are separate legal teams for such cases.

“There is a bar association and lawyers from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to help the poor, but the [volunteer] team act as a separate entity.”

“We help poor women across the country, and for female inmates who have already been convicted, it’s beyond our authority. We can only assist poor women whose cases are still proceeding,” he said.

Nuth Veasna, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons, told local reporter on Tuesday that as of March 2, there were 2,511 female inmates across the Kingdom. That includes women who have been convicted and those who have been placed in pre-trial detention.

“We are looking to help expedite legal procedures in accordance with the law so that the women can be pardoned or have their sentences reduced,” he said.

Veasna said that following the prime minister’s appeal, he expects to see many female inmates pardoned or have their sentences reduced during the upcoming Khmer New Year holiday.

A Ministry of Interior report said as of December 10 last year there were a total of 31,686 inmates, 2,657 of them women.

Rights group Adhoc’s spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna said while he welcomed the establishment of the voluntary legal team, he was concerned about the influence the team may have on the courts’ independence.

“We are worried that the courts’ or the judges’ performance will be influenced by [Hun Sen’s] legal team. They can lose their independence and therefore face difficulties in making judicial decisions.”

“Not all the women are victims … it’s possible that some of them are actually offenders. So when the female offenders are represented by the government’s legal team, the judges will face challenges,” he claimed.