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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Kompong Speu prison "scandal"

Kompong Speu prison "scandal"

A prisoner is dead; seven are in hospital; many more are sick. What happened in Kompong

Speu? Matthew Grainger and Sou Sophannara report.

Huy Tahvay, 23, could see nothing more than "a mist"

through glassy eyes. He could barely smoke a cigarette because his hands were so

weak and his movements so jerky. He had neither the strength nor coordination to

walk.

Tahvay was one of four local prisoners finally, after months, hospitalized for malnutrition

and other diseases on Oct 4. Another three prisoners were admitted when the Post

visited on Oct 9 and 10.

One man had already died. Va Sarin, 36, was the first to be taken to hospital on

Sept 28. He managed to last the night, and was dead by morning of tuberculosis, exacerbated

by his extreme weakness following months of being fed aged, often rancid rice and

weak soups, twice a day.

Sarin's body lay for four days in the hospital mortuary. It was only buried after

a kind-hearted local prosecutor paid 20,000 riels of his own money to have it taken

away.

Prison chief Sim Samon said 75 out of his 84 prisoners are sick. A human rights group

said more than half of them couldn't sit up or leave their cells.

Most have a variety of disease and afflictions - beri-beri, scabies and other parasites,

ulcers, malaria, syphilis, at least one other has TB. Malnourishment has reached

the stage where many are bedridden, weak and find it hard to breath and swallow.

Some, now in hospital, are partially blind.

The scandal of Kompong Speu prison was caused by protracted and gross negligence

from various authorities who now point the finger of blame at each other.

Local human rights groups with mandates to check on prison conditions - LICADHO,

Adhoc and Charto - were plainly ineffective. It took five months for conditions to

deteriorate so badly to the point where a man died.

Sim Samon reckoned he told the hospital, local provincial chiefs and the NGOs about

the worsening conditions but got no help.

Hospital bosses say they regularly sent doctors and medicine to the prison. However,

no-one else can remember or verify that the hospital did very much at all to help,

certainly till it was too late for Va Sarin.

The deputy provincial governor - who privatized the food contract for both the hospital

and the prison, on apparent orders from the Ministry of Finance to "make the

province profitable" - said the food was not the problem.

He blames the prison nurse for stealing and selling medicines, and that the prisoners

got no exercise. Sim Samon says the food contract was corrupted.

The Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh was quick to investigate the mess when it

was finally alerted in the first week of this month.

It ordered the food contract to be stopped - but that hasn't been done yet - and

for all parties to get together to solve the problems.

However, a planned meeting between the hospital, the prison and the local government

was canceled on Oct 6, because people were too busy.

That was the day of the "Miss Kompong Speu" beauty pageant.

Key players in this affair did not want their names mentioned in this article: the

second deputy governor; the two local LICADHO agents; and the human rights worker

who - outside his mandate - finally got something done.

As an appointed senior representative of the province, the Post understands the second

deputy governor's name to be Ong Sim of the Funcinpec party.

The human rights worker told the Post: "In August I saw three prisoners with

bad diseases, and I told the prison chief (Sim Samon) that something had to be done.

He agreed."

"Two weeks later I asked Samon about the prisoners. He said they were getting

treatment." The worker said at that stage he did not realize how big the problem

was.

Here the contradictions first appear. Samon says he repeatedly asked the hospital

to visit - as they should have been doing once a month, and say now they were doing

- and also reported to provincial chiefs.

The prisoners themselves say that they did get some medicine, but that it was ineffective.

They never saw a hospital doctor.

Soon after, the human rights worker discovered how desperate was the situation. Three

times he implored doctors to visit but they did not show up till the beginning of

October, he said.

On Sept 28, Samon found prisoner Va Sarin in "a bad way" and had him removed

to hospital. Sarin died the following morning from TB worsened by malnutrition.

Days later, four more men were stretchered from jail, partially or totally blind

and unable to sit or walk. Around thirty prisoners were sick; another forty of the

84-strong population were later to fall sick.

When the Post visited, conditions in this previously unheralded prison were awful.

The stench in the small cells was overwhelming. Sanitation is limited to the odd

times when water is available. Prisoners stated matter-of-factly that the food they

had been given since before May was too little and often rotten. Sometimes the cheap

rice had worms.

The human rights worker's report to his Phnom Penh HQ talked of images conjured up

of Khmer Rouge days, with one prisoner seen cooking a small crab found in the compound.

The report - a copy of which was provided as background to the Post - talked of an

"impending disaster".

It says the second deputy governor had a "dim and negative view of prisoners",

who were all "killers and robbers" and needed to be "strictly controlled."

It continues: "The doctors don't treat patients unless they are paid...,"

prisoners were "treated like dirt and (the doctors) don't go near them... and

say they have no drugs".

"I personally believe that these Cambodian doctors are an insult to the medical

profession," he wrote.

"It's a scandal... where was everyone?" he said.

Sim Samon told the Post that Kompong Speu was the only prison in Cambodia to have

privatized feeding of prisoners. Previously, prisoners grew their own vegetables,

getting exercise in the process. In his 16 years as a prison chief "I have never

had so many prisoners sick".

At 1,000 riels a day per prisoner, the cooks were given around $1,000 a month to

feed the 84 prisoners. The cooks - a pair of businessmen called Kon Ei and Kon Sin,

whom the Post were unable to track down - were given the hospital contract at the

same time as that of the prison.

The contracts were given by second governor Ong Sim, who told the Post he knew the

men as experienced cooks. A hospital representative helped evaluate the contract,

he said.

Samon however said it was impossible to believe the two contractors spent all the

money on food. The rice was cheap, and sometimes uncooked and rotten; the soup sometimes

had only a couple of fish or old vegetables in it. Prisoners got leftovers from the

hospital diet, he said.

Interior prison chief General Na Sa Heang, who visited the prison with human rights

representatives, told Samon to take over feeding the prisoners himself, as was the

case in the past.

However, Samon said he was waiting for a final decision to do this from Ong Sim.

When asked who had more power: General Na Sa Heang or the deputy governor, Samon

twice said: "The second deputy governor."

"I still wonder about the system... I must give the money (to the contractors)

every month, because I have orders from the authorities," he said.

Throughout June, July and August, Ong Sim and human rights groups LICADHO, Adhoc

and Charto knew that prisoners were getting sick, Samon said. The rights groups "just

came to ask questions".

The prisoners were kept locked, about 20 to a cell. "When I arranged the food

the prisoners exercised by planting and farming. But then the system changed so they

just came out of the cells for a few minutes a day... I don't have authority to do

more," Samon said.

Ong Sim said the food contracts were privatized "in accordance with the Ministry

of Economy and Finance because they asked us to make a profit for the province".

Sim said since the feeding changes - and others he did not specify - the province

had been profitable.

Sarin's death, and the multiple sicknesses and malnourishment of most of the other

prisoners "was not caused by the food." Sim said the prisoners were criminals

and because they were put into cells with neither exercise nor hygiene, beri-beri

broke out.

He acknowledged receiving reports from the prison but that he ordered medicine to

be sent. "The [prison] nurse did not do his job... I suspect where the drugs

may have gone."

Ong Sim said he knew the prison was "not a decent place... but that doesn't

mean I don't take care of [the prisoners]".

Sometimes the prisoners had so much food that some was left over, Ong Sim said.

The Post talked to two hospital deputy directors, Dr Pol Sovannara and vice director

Dr Yem Chheoun. The hospital director was not available for comment, nor has he been

each time human rights groups have asked for him.

Chheoun said the food was just one of the causes of the problem.

A doctor was now visiting the prison once a week. Visits were not done sooner "because

disease wasn't serious then, it's just serious now". Anyhow, he said, visits

were the responsibility of another doctor, a Dr Ye (who was unavailable for comment).

When asked if Dr Ye was to blame for no visits having been made to the prison, he

said that maybe it was a case of him being too busy.

Dr Sovannara, when asked what had caused prisoner Huy Tahvay's blindness, said it

might have been caused by police hitting him on the head when he was arrested "but

I don't know". Tahvay had at the time of interview been in jail for one and

a half years.

Two LICADHO representatives at the hospital confirmed they visited the prison once

a month but said the evidence of disease during those times was not so bad.

When conditions worsened around August they reported to the local authority, they

said. "Our job is just to report to the government, that's what we did."

LICADHO - when the word eventually reached its Phnom Penh headquarters - did move

immediately to provide food and medical help. Other NGOs in the area, such as the

Irish group Concern, were asked by LICADHO to help. As the Post was about to leave

the hospital, one of the unnamed local LICADHO representatives said they would be

supplying more goods to the prison this month: a piece of soap for each prisoner;

a bucket; and a volleyball.

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