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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Prison rates soaring in Cambodia

Prisoners sit in the courtyard of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison under the watch of guards in 2009.
Prisoners sit in the courtyard of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison under the watch of guards in 2009. Heng Chivoan

Prison rates soaring in Cambodia

Cambodia's incarceration rate has doubled in the past 10 years, according to statistics obtained from the General Department of Prisons.

Department spokesman Nouth Savna said that in 2006 there were just 9,634 people behind bars; as of earlier this week, that figure had increased 125 percent, to roughly 21,700.

Justice Ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment on how the Kingdom’s incarceration rate had gone up so sharply – doubling from 0.07 percent to 0.14 percent of the total population being in prison.

However, defence lawyer Sok Sam Oeun credited the jump at least in part to more effective law enforcement, as well as prosecutors having a wider array of crimes with which to charge defendants than 10 years ago.

He also noted that many of his clients are spending ever more time in pre-trial detention, contributing to the Kingdom’s rising incarceration rate, which increased nearly 24 percent in the past 12 months alone.

“One has been detained for four years, one for 18 months in pre-trial detention,” Sam Oeun said. “The trial detention period is increasing.”

He said the Criminal Procedure Code, issued in 2007, lacks precise limits on pre-trial detention, leaving it to individual judges’ discretion.

As of press time, Prisons Department spokesman Savna had not responded to a request for information on what proportion of Cambodia’s prison population are in pre-trial detention.

However, rights group CCHR’s Trial Monitoring program – in the course of observing 2,558 trials between 2009 and 2012 – found that two-thirds of the 3,360 defendants charged had spent time in pre-trial detention.

“From a human rights-based approach, it is not good practice to see high numbers in pre-trial detention,” CCHR advocacy director Piseth Duch said in an email. “Only in exceptional circumstances with solid evidence should judges decide to put defendants in pre-trial detention.”

Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at NGO Licadho, which monitors 18 of the country’s prisons, said that overcrowding has long been a problem in Cambodia’s jails.

“The government has tried over the years to build more prisons, but that’s a very short-sighted measure,” Pilorge said. “For us, the biggest thing is to look at bail . . . instead of pre-trial detention.”

She also noted that many detainees are people with alcohol and drug issues “that in other countries would be dealt with by welfare services”.

Her observation was echoed by Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, who said many inmates come from less-advantaged economic backgrounds.

“Looking into prisons, you can see massive inequality,” he said.

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