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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Child prisoners haunt Cambodia's penal system

Child prisoners haunt Cambodia's penal system

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Chin Pheu, aged four, has another three years to spend in jail

AROUND the time of his seventh birthday, four-year old Chin Pheu will get a gift

most children take for granted: his freedom.

For the past year, Pheu has been the youngest inhabitant of Kandal Prison in Takmao

alongside his mother, who is serving a four-year sentence for murder.

But rather than a miscarriage of justice, Pheu's case is an example of one of the

more curious rights granted to women under the Cambodian legal code.

"Under Cambodian law it's a mother's legal right to keep her young children

with her if she goes to prison," explained Yim Po, Director of the Cambodian

Children's Protection Organization. "It's wrong for a child to have to go to

prison, but the law recognizes the need for a young child to not be separated from

her mother."

The legal permission for mothers in Cambodia to take their children with them behind

bars is codified in Article 18 of the Procedures on Administration of Prisons, which

reads "Children may live with their mother in prison until they are six years

old ... When living in prison children should be able to leave and enter the prison

according to prison rules."

Pheu's road to Kandal Prison is a twisted tale of betrayal, jealousy and revenge

that began when his mother, Sun Deur, murdered the nine-month old love child of an

illicit union between her husband and her sister.

Fearful of her sister and now ex-husband seeking vengeance against her by harming

her son, Deur told the Post that she opted to trade Pheu's freedom for the relative

safety of the armed guards and barbed wire of Kandal Prison.

"In September my husband came here and told me he wanted to take Pheu back home

but I refused," the pale, shy, former Kien Svay market vendor said softly. "I'm

afraid that my husband's second wife will mistreat my son."

Pheu is not the only preschooler languishing at the side of a parent behind the walls

of a penal institution in Cambodia.

According to Eva Galabru of the human rights NGO Licadho, Pheu is just one of at

least 20 Cambodian children, from newborns to five-year-olds, spending their childhoods

accompanying their mothers through a grim daily regimen of prison labor, lockdowns

and unrelenting surveillance.

Although Licadho attempts to address the needs of Cambodia's child prisoners through

the organization's prison visitation program, Galabru says more is needed.

Kandal Prison Director Muong Sam Arth is the first to point out that his facility

is far from an ideal environment for raising a child, and shakes his head disapprovingly

when he describes the seven other women convicts of the prison with whom Pheu spends

most of his waking hours.

"Murderers, acid-attackers, child-traffickers, thieves," Arth said of Deur

and Pheu's dormitory-mates. "This is not the place for a child."

Arth speaks from experience. In the six years that he has been Kandal Prison Director,

Pheu is the second child to become part of the prison community for which he is responsible.

"The last time, a woman inmate gave birth in the prison," he said. "But

in this prison there is no medicine and no doctor on call in case of any emergency."

Deur has already been made tragically aware of the consequences that the prison's

poor hygiene and lack of effective medical care can have on a child. Three months

after arriving at the prison with Pheu, her two year-old daughter died of complications

arising from a fever.

Arth's concern about the welfare of the youthful charges under his supervision is

not entirely humanitarian: because the chronically cash-strapped Cambodian government

does not allocate any funds for the food, clothing and medical care of inmate's children,

responsibility for their maintenance falls on him.

"I have to pay for everything myself, using my own money and money earned from

the sale of vegetables from the prison garden," he said.

More troubling for Arth is the potential effects Pheu's incarceration might have

on his intellectual development and future educational success.

"I'm really concerned about Pheu not being able to go to school," Arth

said. "He may be okay ... His mother might be released [early] in the next two

or three years and at six or seven years of age I hope it won't be too late for him

to begin learning."

In the last two months Deur has apparently recognized the harm her decision to keep

Pheu with her behind bars might inflict on him, and says that she has unsuccessfully

tried to convince Pheu to move to a state orphanage.

"I feel so sorry for Pheu [because] he has to live here," she said. "But

when I try to talk to him about going to live in an orphanage he gets very upset."

Pheu's reluctance to leave his mother to prison life may be born from a well-founded

fear of what might become of her after he leaves.

"Last week her husband came here to ask her permission to divorce her and marry

a new wife," Arth confided. "She got extremely depressed and then tried

to commit suicide."

While his mother struggles with her own demons, Pheu appears at first glance to behave

much like any other four-year-old.

"He's a normal kid ... he plays with the sons and daughters of the guards,"

Arth said. "He only gets upset when he gets out of sight of his mother."

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