By Beh Lih Yi

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The conviction rate for rape cases in Cambodia is "disturbingly low", as corrupt officials mediate illegal settlements and pocket kickbacks, deterring women from coming forward and hampering efforts to tackle the crime, activists said.

Campaigners have long said sexual violence is not taken seriously in the Southeast Asian country of 15 million people, and there is widespread impunity.

Of 282 rape and attempted rape cases investigated by Phnom Penh-based Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho) in 2015, only 53 ended with a conviction and an appropriate sentence, the rights group said in a report released this week.

"The justice system remains weak and corrupt, and victims continue to struggle to find justice," Licadho's deputy advocacy director Naly Pilorge said in an interview on Tuesday.

"The failure to punish perpetrators of rape means that the justice system is not working as a deterrent, and it not only lets down the victims concerned, but reduces the likelihood that future victims will take the risk of reporting the crimes."

The report found cases in which survivors dropped their complaints before going to trial because of compensation deals negotiated by police, prosecutors or investigating judges, who "almost always" took a cut of the settlement.

In response to Licadho's findings, the Cambodian Women's Affairs Ministry said it was working with women and girls to improve reporting of the crime while raising awareness among officials to discourage any money changing hands in these cases.

"Rape is a heinous crime which is never justified," ministry spokesman Puthborey Phon told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

"All rapists must be prosecuted according to our laws. Mediation and economic compensation in rape cases are unlawful."

Of the cases Licadho researched, 217 survivors were children under the age of 18.

However, it said the low number of adult survivors did not necessarily represent a trend, and was probably due to underreporting and fear of stigma and rejection by husbands.

In a 2013 United Nations study, almost one in three Cambodian men interviewed said they had used physical and sexual violence against a partner, and 5 percent admitted to taking part in a gang rape.

About 45 percent of men who admitted rape said they faced no legal consequences, according to the U.N. findings.

(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, editing by Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)