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The fight against ‘popular justice’ in Cambodia

04 October 2019

Person laying on floor with outstretched hand

Leng's mother listened motionless as one of the witnesses recounted the incident that took her son's life the night before.

She tried to hide her feelings as much as she could because she did not want people to know that Leng was her son, due to the stigma and shame associated with being involved in a case of theft.

In July 2017 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a young girl accused Leng, a 15-year old boy, of wearing a t-shirt that had been stolen. Several people started to shout "thief! thief!" before grabbing him and tying his hands behind his back. The beating started soon after. Leng was punched and kicked by the mob, other people threw beer cans at his head. One witness reported that Leng was kneeling and begging for mercy: "his tears were mixing with blood running from his head," he said, while Leng's mother listened silently.

Badly beaten and terrified, Leng managed to escape from his attackers with his hands still tied behind his back. He fell into a pond that serves as a dumping site and pleaded for help as he could not swim. Leng drowned a few moments later because no one attempted to rescue him.

The following day, his bruised body was found floating among the garbage.

When people take the law into their own hands

Leng's story is not an isolated case in Cambodia. Such violent acts continue to be reported year after year in the country.

The term "popular justice" refers to an act of people taking the law into their own hands, generally involving violence and often in retaliation to an alleged crime, or a response to a perceived threat.

In a recent report released by UN Human Rights, the organisation listed 73 cases of mob violence in Cambodia between 2010 and 2018. In 57 cases, the victims died following the incident, while people were injured or harassed in the remaining 16 cases.

With no official data, the actual figures are likely to be higher.

Most cases are rarely investigated by the authorities and perpetrators of mob violence are often perceived as crime fighters or vigilantes helping society get rid of someone that is hurting other people.

Fabienne Luco, Human Rights Officer in Cambodia, said that it is crucial that there is "effective investigation and prosecution of criminals. This will help build trust in the authorities, and therefore encourage people not to take justice into their own hands."

Why is "popular justice" occurring in Cambodia?

Many people interviewed for the report indicated a lack of trust in the police, court and prison system, and believed they were entitled to defend and protect themselves by resorting to violent acts of 'instant justice' when they caught the alleged perpetrators. Many reported corruption among the police, and stated that justice was not being delivered properly as thieves were bribing their way out of custody.

Acts of mob violence are also strongly linked to poverty and exclusion. Cases are more frequent in specific geographical locations characterised by a lower level of economic and social development, or that are less accessible.

People accused of theft are the most common victims. Simple accusations are often sufficient to ignite a crowd into deadly violence and participants in the beatings are ordinary bystanders who witness the incident, or hear the call, "thief."

Other victims are people accused of practicing witchcraft or sorcery. UN Human Rights documented 49 witchcraft-related cases between 2012 and 2018, among which 35 involved killings and 14 attempted killings or harassment cases. 

Victims must be granted their rights

Luco said that acts of popular justice "deny the victims the right to life, to a fair trial, and to the presumption of innocence."

UN Human Rights is currently working with the Cambodian government to strengthen the legal and judicial infrastructure. The report has recommended legislative change, calling for a policy which addresses acts of popular justice and the revision of existing guidelines for police intervention in case of mob violence.

The organisation is also urging the government to condemn publicly all acts of popular justice and to ensure that the killings and violence are promptly investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned.


04 October 2019

Person laying on floor with outstretched hand