Yesterday, International Women’s Day, Amnesty International released two reports on sexual violence against women and judicial response to this violence. The report Breaking the silence: Sexual justice in Cambodia focuses on how police corruption intimidates, frightens, and harms victims in Cambodia who attempt to come forward, usually with one’s chances of justice falling along class lines. I haven’t yet had the time to read the entire 60 page report (pdf), but regardless wanted to draw attention to the shameful situation, and the parts of the report I have been able to examine.
Demanding cash bribes from victims and/or their families before agreeing to an investigation is the most common act of corruption on behalf of police. In addition to this being a generally horrific request, the fact is that many Cambodians simply do not have the funds to pay the bribe, or must endure extreme hardship to do so. From the actual report:
A clear majority of interviewees told Amnesty International that they had paid bribes to the police, or had been asked to pay bribes but did not have any money. In 21 of the 30 cases victims reported that police had “investigated” the incident. Sixteen of these responded that they knew they had had to pay bribes to ensure an investigation. Typically, they were asked for between five and 10 USD to initiate an investigation, which almost none of them could afford.
In some cases, police will offer to take other forms of “payment” in exchange for starting an investigation — such as one case Amnesty International found, where a police officer told the mother of a victim that he would investigate the rape, if only she complied with his rape of her first:
Two perpetrators raped Mom five times in 2006, when she was 11 years old. Her mother went to the district police, where the police chief asked her for a 10 USD bribe to pay for “the investigation and stationery”. When she did not have the money he requested, the police chief asked her to meet him at a hotel room, suggesting that sex in lieu of money would facilitate the investigation of the rape of her daughter.
Some police officers interviewed by Amnesty International argue that the requests for bribes are the result of underfunding. While this may be to blame for some of the behavior on behalf of police, it doesn’t explain nor justify a climate in which sanctioned rape via coercion and duress by police officers is seen as a valid exchange for an investigation into a different rape. Further, even insofar as it is true, this underfunding nonetheless causes appalling and terrifying treatment towards survivors (emphasis mine):
Police officers who wished to remain anonymous told Amnesty International that their experience in working directly with victims and criminal investigations confirmed this bleak situation. They complained they had no available budget to conduct investigations, and therefore either had to ask the complainant to provide funds; not conduct an investigation; or pay with their own money. Clearly, the prevalence of corruption in the police force takes place in a context of inadequate resources allocation.
Police told Amnesty International that a lack of budget blocked them from acting in ways that ensures the well-being of the victim. For instance, when victims and suspected perpetrators were transported to court for initial questioning, police officers said they typically transport them in the same car, often sitting together in the back seat. Police officers also explained that families of victims and perpetrators were generally also required to split the transportation cost.
Even when families can pay for an investigation, nothing akin to justice is usually actually done. Indeed, rather than a court process with the potential for incarceration for the perpetrator, most rape cases are handled through a mediation process, with a monetary payment to the victim (or victim’s family) as the best outcome:
Extra-judicial settlements are widely used in rape cases; several high-ranking officials believe it is the most common “solution”. In Khmer, the term samroh-samruol is used for this mediation process, which is typically initiated and facilitated by police at the commune or district levels. The police act as a mediator between the families of the victim and the perpetrator, and seek to secure a monetary settlement from the perpetrator or his family to the victim or her family, on the condition that the victim withdraws any criminal complaint. The mediator receives part of the settlement. Around half of the interviewees had experienced such intervention.
Partly accepted as alternative justice, and by some perceived as “the best option available,” extra-judicial settlements are not recognized as a legitimate form of remedy in Cambodian law. Nevertheless, they continue and the authorities recognize that they are widespread.
Although the samroh-samruol is an intervention that is sometimes perceived as providing some “closure” for the victim, several of its characteristics indicate that it may perpetuate the stigma facing victims of rape. One source also said that some victims do not want to receive money, as such a transfer would make them look “cheap,” or as indicated in the case referred to on page 25, would lead the police to perceive the rape as consensual sex. Several of the victims who had received, or agreed to receive, money expressed fear or anger that the perpetrator remained at large and that he could repeat the offence against other women or girls.
Now, my personal reaction to the idea of sitting in a mediation session with my rapist is simply that I can imagine few things more horrifying and triggering. But at the same time, I know that all victims have different needs, and think that alternative avenues should be open for victims to explore, should they want them. I also understand that different cultures have different methods of dealing with crime, and I am entirely open in general to the idea of community solutions to violence that do not involve the prison system.
But all of that said, this is not a community-based solution, but an illegal government practice that seemingly involves a lot of exploitation. Further, it’s unclear that the victims going through the process actually desire to, rather than simply perceiving it as their only option for their perpetrator to be held accountable at all. And importantly, these kinds of solutions are absolutely useless if they do not require real accountability from the perpetrator and address the roots of violence, but only allow him an easy out and opportunity to offend again.
But the police corruption is often worse, still. As in so many parts of the world (including the good ol’ U.S. of A.), it can extend to outright violence, usually against the most vulnerable targets. In addition to the coercive sexual violence against poor women, referenced above, police are also quite likely to be the original perpetrators of sexual violence against sex workers. When sex workers are raped by non-police, they are thus also extremely reluctant to seek out help from law enforcement (emphasis mine):
Amnesty International interviewed two sex workers who reported that uniformed police officers had raped them. In both instances, the victims had been rounded up in raids on sex workers and first encountered the perpetrator while in police custody.
Police had arrested Thavy together with four other sex workers in a Phnom Penh park in November 2009. They were taken to the nearest police station, where a few officers, who appeared to be drunk, beat the detainees with their batons on the ankles and forced them to clean the toilet. A uniformed policeman who did not work at this particular station was also there. After a couple of hours at the station, he approached Thavy and forced her to go with him to a guesthouse in another part of town, where he raped her.
Sex workers are particularly vulnerable in their relations with police, which translates into a very low reporting rate of rape, regardless of whether the perpetrator(s) was a policeman or not. All five sex workers interviewed by Amnesty International had been raped numerous times, but none of them had ever gone to the police. Four had concluded that the police pose a danger to them, not a means of protection or assistance. One had not even known that she could have reported the incident to police.
The nauseating icing on this giant, repulsive cake, is that rates of rape in Cambodia also appear to generally be rising.
The report has its flaws. First of all, it seems to wholly ignore the experiences of trans* and intersex victims, as well as victims who are men and boys — in part because this is the general framework usually used when discussing sexual violence, and in part because, as the report notes, data on sexual violence in Cambodia is so generally scarce. Further, while Amnesty International offers its own long list of recommendations at the end of the report, it doesn’t seem to reference any specific Cambodian organizations by name, and discusses their work only in terms of limitations. And while I think AI is a fabulous organization, one which I have financially supported myself on numerous occasions, I’d still much rather that support and recognition go to established, on the ground activists who have the best understanding of their own situation. If you know of any such organizations, please pass along the information, as I’d be more than happy to highlight their work here.
Those substantial limitations in mind, however, the information contained in the report is immensely valuable, as is likely the publicity it will generate. I urge you to give it a closer look yourself, and to help spread the word.