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Assembly passes prison law

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Prisoners make garments at a prison last year. Units like this have since been shut down, according to the government.

A law aimed at reforming the Kingdom’s overburdened prison system was passed by the National Assembly yesterday, despite concerns voiced by rights workers and opposition lawmakers.

Much debate on the law, which passed by a 94-2 maj-ority, centred on a chapter that some lawmakers have said could enable prison department officials to contract inmate labour to companies.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker and spokesman Yim Sovann called on the National Assembly to withdraw chapter five, which details such a provis-ion, because the chances of abuse were too high.

“I am afraid that prison officers will put pressure on prisoners and force them to work,” Yim Sovann said.

Rights workers have previously expressed support for  articles that prohibit torture and cruel treatment in jails and detail improved health care for inmates. However, concerns remained yesterday about provisions regarding the use of prison labour.

“We do support labour programs in general,” Jeff Vize, prison consultant for the rights group Licadho, said.

“It’s really just bringing in the private sector that brings in a potential element of exploitation, and there’s also the issue of what this sort of program does for the country’s  reputation on the international market.”

Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, welcomed the approval of the law, but said it lacked provisions necessary to regulate the conduct of prison officials.

“If they provide jobs for prisoners to work in the prison, they have to provide the same salary that would be provided if the prisoners were working outside the prison,” he added.

Officials defended the provision yesterday, arguing that it would allow prisoners to earn income and gain skills for use upon their release.

“I guarantee that no prison officials will force prisoners to work. If they do so, they are wrong,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng said, adding that the chapter in question enjoyed the support of the Ministry of Commerce.

SRP lawmaker Cheam Chany also took issue with another article in chapter five of the law, which granted inmates the right to file a complaint to the prison director if they were being abused by officials, because most prisoners would be too fearful to report such problems.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MARY KOZLOVSKI

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