Cambodia’s Juvenile Justice System:
Overcoming Challenges to Protect the Rights of Cambodian Youth
At thirteen years old, Chanlina was detained at a prison in Cambodia where she resided with
eighty-seven other prisoners in a one-room cell.1 Despite her young age, she spent over eight months
awaiting trial for drug possession alongside adults in detention, and had little access to an attorney
for the first four months. During International Bridges to Justice’s (“IBJ”) interview with Chanlina,
she described how an officer arrested her for drug possession and proceeded to take her to the police
station.2 At the station, he drafted a statement for her to sign.3 She refused to sign it because she is
illiterate and could not read or write.4 However, after physical threats from the officer, she signed the
false confession with her thumbprint.5 She expressed to IBJ how she “feels as if [she] has no purpose”
and cannot imagine a life “outside of these walls.”6 While pre-trial detention should be a measure of
last resort for juvenile defendants, a report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights states that
Cambodian youth in conflict with the law are routinely detained.7 Although the minimum age of
criminal responsibility is fourteen years old,8 children as young as thirteen, such as Chanlina, are held
in pre-trial detention contrary to law.9 Additionally, due to the lack of birth certificates, something
that is especially common in rural areas, lawyers cannot provide the ages of young offenders who are
arrested and detained,10 which leads to further delays.
1 Author is a graduate of Loyola University Chicago School of Law and is a Legal Program Officer with International
Bridges (IBJ) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She works on issues of pre-trial detention especially among Cambodian
juveniles including Chanlina’s case. She is also a Lecturer for the English-based Bachelor of Law Program at the Royal
University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh. She would like to thank the team of wonderful law students, Sowell
Chan, Sok Sambath Pichny, Nhong Ros Prathna, Koem Ravy, Rothanak Voeun, and Tha Zanarith, who assisted her in
researching, editing, and providing the perspectives of young Cambodians for this article.
2 Interview with Chanlina, detainee at Prey Sar Prison, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (July 1, 2016) (on file with author).
For example, the author met with Chanlina during a visit to Prey Sar visit before her trial. Chanlina was playing in a field
one day when a police officer approached her and accused her of drug possession. Although she had no drugs on her, the
police officer falsely arrested her and physically threatened her if she refused.
7 Joshua Lipes, Cambodians Regularly Face Pre-trial Detention: Rights Groups, RADIO FREE ASIA (Dec. 4, 2013),
https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/trial-12042013163734.html; see also Vong Sokheng & Peter Sainsbury,
Long Pretrial Detentions Planned, PHNOM PENH POST (Aug. 4, 2000, 7:00 PM),
8 LAW ON JUVENILE JUSTICE art. 7 (Cambodia) [hereinafter JUV. JUST.].
9 JUV. JUST., supra note 8, art. 14. Article 14 states that any minor under 14 who is apprehended must be referred to a
designated representative immediately upon arrest rather than pre-trial detention.
10 Kong Vanny and Ariel Hofher, Birth Registration Gives Every Child Their Right to an Identity, UNICEF CAMBODIA
(Aug. 17, 2015), http://unicefcambodia.blogspot.com/2015/08/birth-registration-gives-every-child.html.