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Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana holds a meeting on prisoner pardons during Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

Rapists among pardoned

Scores of convicted criminals – half of them sex offenders – had their prison sentences reduced by the King at Khmer New Year, according to documents obtained by The Post yesterday.

The leniency appears to contradict the government’s stance on prohibiting early release for serious crimes and has observers questioning the transparency of Royal Pardons.

In a royal decree signed April 20, King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned four convicts for crimes ranging from theft to murder, and reduced 68 sentences by up to a year. Of those, 33 were convicted of rape or similar crimes, including prostituting children.

Two former Khmer Rouge cadre, Khem Ngun and Loch Mao, were convicted along with three others in 2008 and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the kidnapping and murder of British deminer Christopher Howes and his Cambodian interpreter Houn Hourth in 1996. Their sentences were reduced by 12 months.

Several prisoners had raped a child under the age of 15 and some had kidnapped women and children for the purpose of prostitution, but they were deemed to “have worked hard to improve themselves during serving their punishment”, the decree said.

Koeth Pisei, 28, was detained in October 2014 for rape and sentenced to five years in jail, with one year suspended. After an additional six-month reduction, he will serve three-and-a-half years. Some prisoners who received reduced sentences were 18 or younger when they committed crimes.

The pardons come about 18 months after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s directive to re-examine the pardoning process, which occurs three times each year on public holidays. In response, the Justice Ministry resolved to end pardons and early release for “big crimes”, such as armed robbery and drug offences. Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin defended the recent pardons.

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Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap speaks to the press after the Ministry's meeting on prisoners' pardons during Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh Hong Menea

“The committee has studied the cruelty and brutality of the crimes . . . when the crime is of a brutal nature or serious, the committee would not give a pardon or reduce their term,” Malin said.

When asked about the Khmer Rouge killing, Malin said he wasn’t familiar with the case but that “they might have improved their personal character”.

Chak Sopheap, from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, feared reducing rapists’ sentences under opaque pardons could send the wrong message.

“Clearly, the implication that the government does not consider rape to be a serious crime is extremely troubling – if Cambodia’s unacceptably high levels of sexual violence are to be addressed, it needs to be clear that all those who perpetrate such heinous attacks will be punished in accordance with the law,” she said in an email.

“The system of Royal Pardons needs to operate transparently and be based on clear criteria . . . to ensure that the tradition of Royal Pardons operates . . . to ensure justice in exceptional cases, rather than as an opportunity for patronage or personal favours.”

Ros Sopheap, from Gender and Development in Cambodia, warned reducing sentences for rapists could traumatise victims. Although welcoming rehabilitation for prisoners, she said counselling was vital.

“We need to look at what programmes are given to them in the prison to change their attitude, to ensure their attitude is changed from black to white,” she said.

James McCabe, head of the Child Protection Unit NGO, applauded Cambodia’s “strong sentencing” for child sex offenders and noted that in most judiciaries there was a system where prisoners could be given reduced sentences for good behaviour and showing remorse.

Janet Wong, country representative for UN Women, which published a report in 2013 finding that 1 in 5 Cambodian men said they had raped a woman, said “access to justice for women remains very challenging” despite government efforts to end violence against women. “Rape is a serious crime and it is important that sentencing reflects this.”

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