No one knows how old Heng Pros really is, but he has caused so much trouble on the streets that police have put him in prison, to the dismay of rights workers who say a minor has been locked up.
Photo by: Eleanor AinGe Roy
Heng Pros in prison uniform at Banteay Meanchey prison. He is suspected to be under the legal age for incarceration.
HENG Pros, a prisoner at Banteay Meanchey's new provincial lockup, is 115 centimetres tall, weighs 38 kilograms and is still growing his adult teeth. His blue prison shirt reaches to his knees, enveloping his slight, boyish frame. Telltale webs of pink scars mar his young brown skin, hinting of a rough life on the streets.
On April 25, Heng Pros was arrested by Poipet police and charged with stealing a mobile phone - a charge he denies. Claiming he was 15 years old and citing a long line of misdemeanor offences, police detained him in a 4-metre-by-4-metre cell with seven other prisoners, all aged between 15 and 17 years.
"This child was noisy and always stole property around Poipet," said Prum Piseth, chief of the Penal Police in O'Chrov district, which includes Poipet. "He is the king of the robbers and drug users, and when we arrested him he told us that he was 15."
The law in Cambodia allows minors as young as 15 to be imprisoned. But children under that age must be taken to a social welfare centre for juveniles run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, of which there is one in Poipet.
Heng Pros, whose head barely grazes the belt buckles of most of the prison guards, insists that he is only 12 years old, and the rights group Licadho is backing his story, despite a frustrating lack of evidence.
Chea Sothea, a Licadho researcher working on the case, is concerned the police, frustrated with this pint-sized gangster, have falsified Heng Pros' age so that he could be put behind bars.
"We think the Poipet police are aware that he is not yet 15, but he is a problem child in Poipet, so they say he is older to allow him to be arrested," she said.
He was definitely on the way to becoming one of the top gangsters in Poipet."
So far, the only evidence of Heng Pros' age is anecdotal - no documents or family testimony have come to light. The only clue is Heng Pros' story: When his alcoholic mother was on her death bed, she told him that he was born in the Year of the Pig. If true, that would mean Heng Pros was born between January 1995 and February 1996 and is currently 13 years old.
His father, who abandoned his son long ago and whose name is not known, cannot be found. Heng Pros says that he sought help from him after his mother's death, but was disowned and turned away.
So Heng Pros took to the streets. For around two years he has been living with a 20-strong gang in Poipet called Thleum, collecting garbage and stealing small goods to feed his methamphetamine addiction.
"Smart, cunning and very heavily addicted to drugs," was how Yan Sam, coordinator of the Damnak Teuk Drop-in Centre where Heng Pros occasionally stayed, described the child.
"He used to come to our centre sometimes, but he was always a troublemaker, trying to entice the other children away and back onto the streets. He was definitely on the way to becoming one of the top gangsters in Poipet," Yan Sam added.
Turning over a new leaf
Despite such bleak accounts of Heng Pros' criminal past, Bantaey Meanchey Provincial Prison Deputy Chief Phean Chhavan says he is a "model prisoner" and a "simple boy who behaves himself".
Phean Chhavan admits that Heng Pros is the smallest prisoner he has ever seen, but argues prison authorities had no choice but to lock him up in temporary detention while the provincial court investigates his case.
It is unlikely, however, that the officially stated age of Heng Pros will change, as it has already appeared in the original police report and has been accepted by the judge presiding over the case.
But street policemen, immigration officials, NGO workers and street children in Poipet are equally aghast when they are shown a photo of Heng Pros, taken recently in prison, and all insist that he is younger than15.
"The problem, though, is proof," says Chea Sothea, a researcher at the Licadho office in Bantaey Meanchey who is working on uncovering Heng Pros's real age.
"He changes his story a lot. About what exactly he stole and when he last saw his father - who is really our only lead. At the moment we are at a loss as to how to prove his age," she said. "When I exhaust my options, I will send the case to the head office in Phnom Penh, but I am not hopeful that they will be able to find hard evidence either."
Despite Heng Pros' insistence that he is too young to be locked up, the youth says his life has improved behind bars, and he has put on weight the past six weeks.
He also says that is mind is clearer and free of the headaches that plagued him when he was taking methamphetamine three to four times a day. He now says he wants to change his life if he is released from prison.
"I stole because I had to to survive," he told the Post. "And I took drugs because it was the only way I could feel happy. If I am released from prison I want to change. There are many more things I want to do than drugs and crime."