Police forensics in Cambodia?

Short answer: What police forensics?

Very important article in the Cambodia Daily, which I’m copying here without permission (sorry CD but this is worth preserving):

When two North Korean doctors dropped dead in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district in January, the stated cause of death raised eyebrows among many. Police ruled that the hard-partying duo died of simultaneous heart attacks brought on by alcohol consumption, despite their wives’ admission that they had injected the men with a homemade health serum in the hours before their deaths. The men’s wives wrote a letter to police requesting that no autopsy be performed, but according to many, they needn’t have bothered.

“In Cambodia, there is no equipment to do autopsies like in other countries,” said Norng Sovannaroth, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court doctor and the only physician qualified to perform autopsies in Cambodia.

Although he believed the suspicious nature of the North Koreans’ deaths warranted further examination, the power to seek an autopsy falls to the police, and it is a request they rarely make—including in this case, when the women’s stories were allowed to stand without question.

In interviews last month, Dr. Sovannaroth, the court doctor, outlined his frustrations with the shoddy state of forensic medicine in the country. “It’s because the Cambodian government doesn’t care much about autopsies. They just let [the] doctor see what happened and make a report; they never think about it,” he said.

The need to introduce standardized forensic medicine—a discipline that includes autopsies— was first discussed in 2001, when government, medical and legal officials gathered in the capital for the the country’s first-ever conference on the topic. The event ended in formal recommendations for the establishment of a coroner’s office and a university-based forensic medical program. But 15 years later, neither of these exists, and Cambodian police are still eyeballing most corpses to determine the cause of death, according to Dr. Sovannaroth.

Though police often refer to this external examination as an “autopsy,” a procedure of international standards involves opening a body at the front and removing organs one by one before carefully examining them, as well as methodically scrutinizing the outside of the body.

However, Dr. Sovannaroth— who performs autopsies at the Phnom Penh Referral Hospital— said his repeated requests for the practice to be given more funding had been rebuffed, and there was no autopsy training program at the University of Health Sciences.

“I am an autopsy doctor, but in every of meeting at the Health Ministry when I make requests about the need for technical autopsies, they always ignore me,” he said.

He added that he had requested basics such as better tools, DNA testing facilities and the addition to more hospitals of cool rooms needed for storing corpses, to no avail.

“In other Asian countries, the police take any evidence or bodies to do DNA testing…. When will Cambodia do it too?” he said.

Ly Sovann, a spokesman for the  Health Ministry, declined to comment on the issue, saying only that the Ministry of Health “is not responsible for this,” and directing all questions to the Interior Ministry’s technical and scientific department.

Moung Sothea, director of the department, conceded that facilities for forensic medicine were sorely lacking but said there were plans for improvement. “In the provinces…they don’t have enough equipment for autopsies on bodies,” he said. “But by the end of this year we will have full equipment for autopsies in the whole country,” he said. He admitted that autopsies were rarely requested without the intervention of NGOs.

“Our police do autopsies sometimes depending on what we see…but almost all are murders or rapes that involve NGOs—they always request for autopsy for more specifics.”

He said that equipment that can identify DNA, an important tool in many investigations into crimes such as rape and sexual assault, would be purchased “soon,” adding that the government currently relied on NGOs to pay to send blood and other samples overseas. “NGOs that work for protection of children have the budget to take the blood or masks found at the scene [of the crime] to Vietnam or Thailand to do DNA testing,” he said.

James McCabe, chief investigator for the Child Protection Unit, the investigation arm of the Cambodian Children’s Fund NGO, frequently employs the services of court doctor Mr. Sovannaroth.

“We will request an autopsy if we’re not certain [of] the causation of death,” he said, citing an example of an 8-year-old child who was killed by his stepmother in late 2014. “The stepmother had stomped on him. Obviously there were signs of bruising, but no obvious signs of how that child would have died,” he said.“Had we not done that autopsy, that stepmother would not have been charged,” he added.

While the CPU regularly requests autopsies and sends DNA samples collected at crime scenes to Vietnam for analysis if necessary, Mr. McCabe said there was room for improvement in how police were trained to collect such evidence. “The confession is only the start of an investigation…. You then have to corroborate that confession,” he said.

The ability to perform autopsies is crucial to a robust justice system, according to David Ranson, the head of forensic services at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine in Australia. “In most suspicious deaths the police will request that a full autopsy be performed and this request will usually be supported by similar advice from the forensic pathologist,” Dr. Ranson wrote in an email last month.

Still, determining a cause of death is just the first step, Dr. Ranson said.

“[M]ore commonly the issue is one of analysis of the fatal injury to determine question[s] such as: how much force was used, what type of weapon may have been used, how was that weapon wielded,” he said. “For example was the knife used in a stabbing pushed in and out of the body several times through the same wound, was the person lying down sitting or standing when they were stabbed or shot, was the person trying to defend themselves when they were fatally injured,” he continued.

The country’s lack of forensic medicine facilities are considered problematic enough that the British Embassy in Phnom Penh highlighted it in an information sheet at the beginning of this year warning families of U.K. citizens who die in Cambodia.

“You should be aware that the cause of death given on the death certificate is often given in very basic terms, and often does not reveal the underlying cause of why the death occurred,” it states, recommending that families use the services of the Phnom Penh-based coroner John Allison Monkhouse Repatriations.

Contacted last month, the head coroner of John Allison Monkhouse, who declined to give his name, said the only thing his company could do for those who desired a more thorough examination was to ship corpses abroad for a proper autopsy. “There are no forensic pathologists in Cambodia,” he said. “What we can do is send a body to Bangkok.”

Source: “Dearth of Forensics Makes Justice Evasive” – Taylor O’Connell and Sek Odom, Cambodia Daily, May 14, 2016.

Traffic police to keep 70% of fines

traffic_fines_vireak_maiPhnom Penh Post reports that from January next year traffic fines are to increase five-fold and traffic police will keep 70% of what they collect. Some great discussion of this on Khmer 440, although nobody seems to pick up the fact that the cops are already allowed to keep 50%. Some points made there are worth recording:

  • This policy is a result of the inability of the government to pay decent salaries, which is in turn a result of its inability to collect taxes.
  • There’s a danger of cops imposing illegal fines. Dash cams would be a great idea. (Actually I’m not sure – whenever I’ve been stopped for jumping a red light – which seems to be my only sin – it’s been a fair cop).
  • Somebody asks if there’s going to be a system for tracking number plates so that scofflaws who accelerate away can be traced. I half-recall reading something about traffic cameras being introduced in Phnom Penh, so perhaps it’s already under way.
  • “Every copshop funnels a lot of cash up the chain to the head guy, who then channels part of that directly to CPP.” Very true. And I’d just add that after every Pchum Ben festival, when senior cops have to sponsor events at their home-town monasteries, there’s an outbreak of fine-collecting in Phnom Penh.
  • “All pyramid schemes eventually collapse. How long before the Cambodian pyramid topples?”

And what about seeing this from the other side? Back in 2011 the Post ran a story with some interviews with traffic cops. I almost feel sorry for them. For more read here.

STANDING in the shade along a busy intersection in Phnom Penh, a traffic police officer takes a moment to answer his mobile phone amid the sounds of horn blasts and chatter from his Motorola hand-held radio. On the other end of the line his children eagerly await his voice.

“My family worries about my daily activities, especially because they know I stand in the middle of the street and can get hit,” the officer explains, adding that his kids typically phone twice a day. He cites three police officers from his department who have broken their legs or had their toes crushed after being struck by vehicles, highlighting the inherent danger of enforcing traffic laws in the city. He says the job is becoming more difficult because of the increasing volume of traffic on the streets which, according to The Ministry of Public Works and Transport, grows each year by upwards of 20 percent.

“Some drivers don’t respect the traffic laws. They don’t stop or try to obey checkpoints, particularly one-way roads where people go against the flow. Some drivers hurt us but I try to tell my family not to worry about me,” he says. “If I tell my wife it is a dangerous or risky job she’ll only worry more.”

Monks behaving badly


Phnom Penh Post photo

“Monks Behaving Badly” is the title of this article from the Post. It’s a general investigation of the state of monkish morals, and what happens when monks go bad. It says (or rather, an interviewee says) that Cambodians respect the robe rather than the person wearing it. True not only in Cambodia but throughout Southeast Asia so far as I know. The robe is the token of a decision to earn merit, it doesn’t imply that the owner is a man of merit.

It mentions a recent case of four monks arrested for drinking and dancing with girls in a karaoke bar. That infringes two cardinal rules, maybe three – against drink, music, and touching women (I’m assuming they were touching). The penalty as laid down in the rules of the monkhood is disrobing (getting tossed pout of the monastery). It then discusses the question of who can discipline monks, and especially whether the police can disrobe them. The official answer is no, the unofficial answer is yes. It comes down to what type of offense the monk has committed – if it’s a moral one, the abbot disrobes him. The police can investigate monks who break criminal laws, like this monk who raped a British tourist (the article is a catalog  of monks raping women and girls, many of them foreigners). Officially the abbot does the disrobing, but it seems to be the police. In real life there’s a huge grey area involving monks who get into social activism – here’s an article from the Cambodia Daily about some monks who were arrested and defrocked for carrying a flag – a political offense, not a moral one.

Cambodian police ranks and insignia

A website called uniforminsignia.org has this field guide to Cambodian police ranks and insignia. The keys read from top to bottom and from left to right:

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.28.56 PM

staff sergeant – first sergeant – sergeant-major (kiss me goodnight) 

warrant officer – chief warrant officer.

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.29.13 PM1st lieutenant – 2nd lieutenant – captain

major – lieutenant-colonel – colonel

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.29.19 PMbrigadier-general – major-general – lieutenant-general – general

Screen Shot 2015-04-13 at 7.28.56 PMI’ve been told that the rank of police captain doesn’t carry a lot of clout – “a captain sleeps on his motorbike.” I’m still trying to find out what responsibilities the various higher ranks would carry – what rank, for instance, would the head of police at khan level carry?