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Cambodia's prison population 'doubles in six years'

UN says 'perilous' prison system is operating at more than three times capacity
Cambodia's prison population 'doubles in six years'

Prisoners including union leader Rong Chhun arrive in a truck at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 15, 2021, where Chhun was standing trial for alleged incitement. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 15, 2022 09:32 AM GMT
Updated: March 15, 2022 09:39 AM GMT

The number of inmates held in Cambodia’s prisons has more than doubled since 2015 with 38,977 prisoners being held in facilities designed to hold up to 8,804 amid insufficient sleeping space and a lack of clean water and fresh air, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

A committee report, covering the period from June 1, 2020, to May 31, 2021, found the prisons were operating at 343 percent capacity.

The report was concluded in September and discussed in Geneva late last week at a meeting under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

“The situation in prisons is perilous to the point that the conditions may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment ... given the levels of mental and physical pain experienced by prisoners,” the report said.

That included a lack of sleeping space, the inadequacy of water and sanitation, and limited access to fresh air and health care. It also referred to allegations of suspicious deaths in custody that went unreported and were not investigated.

According to a Radio Free Asia (RFA) report, Chin Malin, secretary of state of Cambodia’s Justice Ministry, insisted his government had worked hard to resolve the issue by reducing a backlog of court cases, suspending sentences and releasing some people held in pretrial detention.

“These deplorable conditions make a mockery of physical distancing and show the Cambodian authorities’ utter neglect for these inmates’ basic rights, even during a pandemic"

Nuth Savana, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, told RFA that prison overcrowding has been reduced since last year. The department reported a decrease of 2,000 prisoners this year from the nearly 39,000 people behind bars in 2021.

He said his department was also addressing water shortages in detention facilities, saying more wells had been dug at prisons.

“[Concerning] prisons that face the problem, we are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross to create filtered water systems, such as in Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces,” Nuth Savana said. “We have prioritized the lack of water first.”

Authorities said they had released detainees who committed minor offenses, expedited vaccinations and limited visits to prevent the spread of Covid-19 within prisons.

Cambodia has been accused of ignoring the plight of prisoners by human rights groups. Ny Sokha, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA the congestion could be due to an increase in the number of incarcerated drug users.

“If we cannot solve the problem of overcrowded prisons, it can affect prisoners’ health and their mental state so that when they are released, they cannot be good human resources,” he said. “They become sick and suffer from debilitating diseases, so it’s not good for them or for our society.”

As the pandemic erupted two years ago, Amnesty International released footage of “inhumane conditions and extreme overcrowding” which it referred to as a “ticking time bomb” given the potential of Covid-19 to spread.

“These deplorable conditions make a mockery of physical distancing and show the Cambodian authorities’ utter neglect for these inmates’ basic rights, even during a pandemic,” said David Griffiths, director in the Office of the Secretary-General at Amnesty International.

“These conditions were never acceptable. Today they are completely unconscionable. The authorities must urgently ease this overcrowding crisis while giving all detainees access to appropriate health care without discrimination.”

UN meetings about the issue are continuing until March 25.

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