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A former prisoner from Battambang prison speaks about making furniture
A former prisoner from Battambang prison speaks about making furniture. Heng Chivoan

Made with conviction

Within the walls of Battambang Provincial Prison, a highly lucrative carpentry business has elevated a convicted logger to the status of prison don, one whose alliance with the warden and de facto rule has shrouded the jail in fear and silence, those close to the operation allege.

Teav Chhai was arrested in Battambang’s Samlot district in 2008 and sentenced to eight years for logging luxury wood illegally, sources told the Post. After serving about a year in Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, he was granted a transfer request and sent back to Battambang.

Multiple sources – including former inmates – allege that Chhai rapidly transformed a small-scale vocational carpentry scheme into a big earner, producing made-to-order furniture using luxury wood such as beng and thnong, which are protected species under Cambodia’s forestry laws.

Chhai collaborated directly, they added, with prison director Sam Ol Thearith, who is now considered the only person to hold more authority within the prison than Chhai, a situation confirmed by a current prison guard.

Both Chhai and Ol Thearith have denied the existence of the alleged prison racket.

The illicit business, understandably, is a secretive one, leaving few willing to speak out.

Oudom*, a former inmate who worked under Chhai, said that the inmates working for the business – about 10 per cent of the prison’s population – work a solid eight-hour day, seven days a week.

During working hours, the 100 or so prisoners, who, several sources confirmed, were forced to work for Chhai, had “no time to speak”, Oudom said.

“Prisoners who are detained for a long time have to work for Mr Chhai; they have no choice but to work for him.”

The seven-day week is prohibited under the rules governing Cambodian prisons, which mandate at least one day off, but Oudom said Chhai and Ol Thearith had no concern for such niceties.

Prisoners who refuse the work or are taken ill have been denied visitation rights, have spent time locked in their cells as punishment and have endured long periods in handcuffs as a form of torture, he said. “We don’t want to be punished, so we have to work even if we are sick.”

A prison guard, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the situation in no uncertain terms.

“They force prisoners to work for them [making furniture] for sale, and prisoners do not get any of the benefits. We have no power, so we cannot speak out,” he said.

Ol Thearith declined to answer questions about the business. “If someone accuses me, show me the evidence. They cannot just accuse me,” he said, before hanging up the phone.

When contacted earlier this month, Ol Thearith, formerly the director of Ratanakkiri prison, refused to grant reporters access to the prison or a face-to-face interview.

The Interior Ministry has not responded to multiple written requests to access the prison since May.

Oudom and another source with direct knowledge of the prison’s inner workings reported that high-end vehicles with police and army number plates transport the wood to the prison each day, where it is stored in the kitchen so it is “easy to hide”.

Sources said that the two prison kingpins use senior inmates to micromanage the business, dividing labourers into two groups: one to carve and assemble and another to polish the products ready for sale.

Despite Chhai’s release from the prison late last year – he received a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, according to a former inmate and another source – former prisoners and staff confirmed that he still takes an active role in running the business.

At a modest furniture shop in Battambang’s O’Char commune, a salesman confirmed that he worked for Chhai. Items at the shop – which were separately confirmed by a former inmate and others to have been crafted by prisoners – included a bed frame and intricately carved wall art priced at up to $7,000 per piece.

When Post reporters visited the shop earlier this month, however, the salesman said he was unsure of the exact origin of the products.

“He has a place for making furniture, but I don’t know for sure where it is.… I heard that it is near the prison,” the shopkeeper said. “Whatever you want, Uncle Chhai can get it for you.”

Five separate sources, including two former inmates and the shopkeeper himself, told the Post that goods from Chhai are transported across the country to be sold in shops like the one in O’Char.

“It is sold everywhere; Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Battambang,” Oudom said.

A source with intimate knowledge of the business side of Chhai’s operation said that inmates are paid 1,000 riel per day – about 25 cents – while the warden receives 7,000 riel per inmate, per day, or about $1,400 every week for renting out their labour. Another source alleged that Ol Thearith received a separate payment for the use of the space.

Speaking to the Post last week, Chhai denied his business had links with the Battambang prison, but confirmed he was able to supply furniture made from precious and illegal timber.

“Yes, we can find thnong [and] beng, but it is very expensive. A lot of people have ordered me to do tables for their offices [in thnong], so now it is difficult for us to find”, he said.

But despite Chhai’s denial, the prison guard said the business was still going strong.

Cambodia’s 2011 Law on Prisons allows private firms to employ prisoners, but a prakas issued months later clarified that such schemes should be “managed” by the state in the “public interest”.

The prakas, however, carries little weight, and while the law states that a sub-decree governing “the use of income generated by the prison industry” would be introduced, at the time of this writing, none has been passed.

“We are informed that the General Department of Prisons is working on a draft; OHCHR has not yet received a copy,” Bushra Rahman, a communications specialist for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an email.

Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said Cambodia’s prison procedures clearly state that prisoners should not work for private benefit and that “the purpose of prison labour schemes should be primarily rehabilitative, to provide opportunities and skills to help prepare inmates for their return to the community”.

Under the International Labour Organization’s Convention 29, which Cambodia ratified in 1969, labour in prisons can only be “carried out under the supervision and control of a public authority and the said [inmate] is not hired to or placed at the disposal of private individuals, companies or associations.”

The legislation states that prisoners may work for private companies only if conditions approximate “a free employment relationship.”

Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, said that he was not aware of any furniture business currently operating out of Battambang prison, adding that for-profit businesses running out of prisons had been shut down several years ago for the welfare of inmates.

“I do not believe [they are still running],” he said. “They cannot export without a licence, but they could run the business if they are licensed.”

But like other rights groups the Post spoke to, Licadho said that gaining access to the prison was a difficult task these days; something multiple sources attributed to the secretive nature of the business.

“For the past two years, Licadho’s access to Battambang prison has become increasingly restricted. It can be difficult to meet with individual inmates, including human rights defenders, in a confidential setting. Licadho continues to receive reports of abusive treatment in the prison and of poor detention conditions,” Pilorge said.

She added that how profits were used is a key issue in determining whether a prison work scheme is appropriate.

“If the profits from appropriate and well-supervised prison labour programs are directed at improving prison conditions and generating new opportunities for inmates, this is one thing. If, on the other hand, the profits are lining the pockets of corrupt officials whilst the inmates receive nothing, this is pure exploitation,” she said.

The OHCHR said that its own access to Battambang prison was “not easy” in the first half of the year but has improved recently.

But while many prisoners across the country are happy to take part in vocational training schemes so that they can get out of the cells, OHCHR noted that, when it comes to Battambang prison, “most did not wish to comment on the conditions of the carpentry work area”.

“Where prisons operate [vocational programs], OHCHR will always be concerned about the possibility of prisoners being exploited,” Rahman added.

The luxury timber sources believed to be used in the Battambang prison business are protected under the 2002 Forestry Law and exporting products produced in Cambodian prisons is prohibited by the government prakas. While the Post did not find evidence that Chhai’s products are being exported, overseas demand far outstrips the local market.

Marcus Hardtke, Southeast Asia program coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said that while he did not know about this specific case, the alleged situation in Battambang “follows a pattern we see more and more all over the country”.

“Luxury timber is high value-low volume, [making it] very convenient for smuggling (and supplying the Battambang operation, for example). The money from the luxury timber trade has undermined local structures, provincial and local authorities are bought off or ‘partnered with’,” he added.

Oudom challenged officials who might play down the alleged corruption involved in running the business.

“It is not vocational training for prisoners to help them get skills they can use when they are released from prison.… They have taken over the prison to run their business,” he said

*The name of the former inmate was changed to protect his identity.

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