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Harsh spotlight on the nation's prisons

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Torture, malnutrition, overcrowding...

Human rights, NGO Licadho reports on conditions inside the nation's prisons

When a group of prisoners accused of membership of the outlawed Cambodian Freedom

Fighters (CFF) arrived in court last October, several hobbled in on crutches, and

one suspect after another was unable to stand in the witness box.

Although at that stage they had not been convicted of any crime, they were victims

of the poor conditions prevalent in Cambodia's prisons. Nine of the 28 men were suffering

from beriberi, a wasting disease caused by a lack of vitamin B1.

Beriberi remains one of the most commonly diagnosed health problems. Corruption,

lack of access to clean water, infectious diseases, torture, and sexual abuse are

among the other issues, according to two new reports released by human rights NGO

Licadho.

One report documented health conditions of prisoners, while the other was on general

human rights conditions in jail.

"Many prisoners are suffering needlessly of preventable diseases that are largely

a result of the illegal living conditions under which they are being held,"

the reports noted.

Those accused of belonging to the CFF, for example, were regarded as sensitive political

prisoners. They were kept isolated from their families and human rights groups and

forced to live solely on the meager rations provided to prisoners. They are still

being kept in isolated conditions, and it seems unlikely that will change.

"The CFF did not commit the same criminal acts as other detainees [and] could

still affect the politics of Cambodia and its national security," said a Ministry

of Interior official involved with prisons, Sour Sokheng, of their continued isolation.

Licadho's reports identified increased population pressure as the major cause of

the worsening conditions. The number of people behind bars jumped 10 percent last

year to more than 5,000.

The NGO noted "a pattern of steady increases in prisoner numbers" in the

prisons that it has monitored over the past six years.

In jails such as the one in Kampong Thom, that has meant more prisoners crammed into

each cell. The prison, which was designed to hold 40 prisoners, now holds three times

that. In 1998 each inmate had 1.7 square meters of space; now they have less than

one square meter each.

Worse still, the report stated, many of those being held had not even appeared in

court. Under Cambodian law a suspect must be brought to trial within six months,

but excessive pre-trial detention, in contravention of local and international law,

is a recurring problem.

The MoI's Sokheng blamed the courts for the current overcrowded conditions.

"It is not a question about prisons being crowded," he said. "It is

a question about expediting the pre-trial procedure."

On the subject of food, Licadho said the daily allocation of 1,000 riel a day per

prisoner was instead used to subsidize running costs. That leaves families with the

burden of bringing food to their relatives on a regular basis, and subsidizing staff

salaries.

Sokheng denied that was the case. "Government officials receive about 2,000

riel a day for lunch, so the detainees receive the same as us," Sokheng said,

adding that "our prison guards never keep the money of the detainees".

"We know about malnutrition and we have planted vegetable gardens in the prisons.

If you visit our prisoners at Kampong Cham, you will see they are fat."

That may be the case, but when the Post recently witnessed a prisoner's family paying

3,000 riel to take food to a relative in Takhmau prison, the guard claimed he needed

the money as he earned only 15,000 riel a month and had not been paid since April.

The report also recorded the use of torture and mistreatment as punishment in prisons

and, in some cases, as an initiation for new prisoners. Torture affected only a small

number of prisoners, although many more - 11.7 percent - reported being tortured

while in police custody.

A case study of Eath Oeurn illustrates the issue of police brutality described in

the report. Oeurn, who was accused of stealing a buffalo and was arrested in July

2001, was dead within three days.

Before his death he accused three police officers of torturing him. The report stated

that although two officers were eventually charged, they have yet to be arrested.

The report also described as 'a serious concern' the issue of sexual abuse. Female

prisoners make up just 5.9 percent of the population, but the report's authors found

evidence of sexual abuse by prison guards. In one case a women was coerced into sex

and fell pregnant to a prison guard who subsequently left the prison.

Sokheng said the government had a strategy to alleviate the numerous problems.

"We have a plan to improve our prisons and build new prisons. The Ministry of

Interior recently established a commission to research this," he said. "We

received money from AusAID to build two prisoner centers in Kampong Speu and Siem

Reap, and AusAID has promised to give funds in 2003 to build one more prisoner center

in Kandal province."

Executive director of Licadho, Kek Galabru, told the Post that despite some progress

over the past few years, the topics in the reports "remain serious issues that

affect the basic rights of [prisoners] especially vulnerable groups".

Adopt-a-Prison scheme

Licadho's recent report into women and children in prison revealed that children,

imprisoned with their mothers, were denied health care, nutrition and education.

"They are innocent of any crime and not given any specific ration during the

first five years of their lives, the most important time for their mental development,"

said Licadho's Naly Pilorge.

In order to "get the community involved and give a chance to these children"

Licadho has implemented a program called 'Adopt a Prison'.

Child rights NGOs and individuals have been asked to provide $59 a month to supply

basic food, mosquito nets and soap, the distribution of which Licadho will monitor.

To support the program contact Licadho.

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