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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Siem Reap: Example of Human Rights Challenges

Siem Reap: Example of Human Rights Challenges

SIEM REAP-For inmates doing time in the Siem Reap provincial prison, the arrival

of UNTAC has meant they are no longer beaten and they now can spend most of the day

in the open-air courtyard rather than in their dank sleeping cells.

Nor are they any longer shackled in solitary confinement for their first week upon

arrival or for disciplinary breaches, and there are weekly medical visits by UNTAC

CivPol and doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres and from the provincial hospital.

Guards say this has led to a drop in escape attempts.

When the Post dropped in recently a group of prisoners were busy repairing the guards'

fishing nets. Although an hour-and-a-half visit would not be sufficient basis for

declaring a new era of harmony at the prison; for example it was unclear how often

the fish catch was shared with inmates whose main complaint now concerns food.

A World Food Program country-wide effort to supply vulnerable populations with food

will not reach prisoners because of difficulties encountered dealing with SOC officials,

partly because the prisoners are to receive a rice ration larger than the guards.

The prisoners' lot, however, is one small measure of a marginally-improved human

rights situation in the province.

"Either the authorities are being very smart or the human rights situation in

the province is fairly acceptable," says Eugenio Pollizi, an Italian lawyer

serving as UNTAC's provincial human rights director. "As far as we know there

are no major human rights violations and I always emphasize as far as we know, because

we are floating on the surface of the sea and there may be things below the surface

that we don't know about."

After several months in the area, UNTAC should have turned up any major violations,

he adds.

There are roughly five murders a month in Siem Reap province but to date none are

known to have been politically motivated. "We are keeping a close eye on this,"

says UNTAC CivPol superintendent Joseph Dowling.

But as electoral activity gets underway this may change and there has been an upsurge

of reported threats. Local SOC authorities are requiring all state employees to register

as party members, local residents report, and dismissals are threatened if they don't

cast their votes correctly. While these might constitute human right violations,

UNTAC investigations are bogged down by the lack of anyone willing to go on record

to object. For most civil servants, just the request from SOC officials is enough

to get compliance.

There is a number of cases UNTAC is closely monitoring, usually backed up by their

own investigations. SOC officials have been put on notice that UNTAC is following

the case of a FUNCINPEC colonel who is accused of stealing a car and killing its

driver. According to Siem Reap police chief, Col. Chea Sophat, the military officer

was arrested recently and the car had been recovered in Battambang.

The recent assassination of an employee of the local military hospital who had threatened

to expose official corruption is another case still under UNTAC investigation. In

this case, the victim apparently had threatened to reveal illegal sales of medicines

for personal gain, either because he was not part of the scam or because he was trying

to boost his share. After a few bullet shots, a motorcycle accident was faked, according

to sources familiar with the case. Col. Chea denied there was even a military hospital

in the provincial capitol, suggesting the level of sensitivities involved.

Another matter "still under investigation" is the whereabouts of roughly

100 inmates held in a military prison that was reportedly emptied in June. The facility

was only discovered by UNTAC in October. UNTAC wants to determine whether the State

of Cambodia soldiers were actually released or merely transferred. An additional

undisclosed detention center-a hut with three soldiers-was recently discovered on

a local military base. After ten days of negotiations UNTAC persuaded officials to

transfer the prisoners to the civilian prison for trial.

The courts themselves present another layer of judicial inadequacies. The judges

are appointed by local authorities and defenders are typically under-trained state

employees and party members. Cutting the link between local authorities and the judiciary

is one of the measures recently adopted by the Supreme National Council (SNC) in

a package of 75 articles that amounts to a new penal code. Now anyone with a secondary

education can serve as a defender.

"I have asked judges to find me some [eligible defender trainees]," says

Pollizi. UNTAC has begun some training courses in Phnom Penh for various judiciary

positions, including judges to serve on Appellate Courts which have been established,

at least on paper, for each province. The new code also specifically allows foreigners

to practice as lawyers here, where just a handful of native lawyers remain, but the

foreigners may be most helpful in training.

Although the new penal code-largely modeled on the French code-reflects carelessness,

such as the definition of rape which left out the phrase "without the consent

of the other party."

Modifications are expected to be published shortly.

Traditional Khmer practice of conciliation, brokered by police or judges, keeps all

but serious crimes-murders and major robberies, etc.-out of the courts. A quick poll-from

behind prison bars-on the current quality of justice yielded a mixed opinion.

Bun Dep, 35, a former soldier is serving a 10-year term for killing a Vietnamese

soldier, a sentence he has no qualms with.

Bo Rorn, 36, a former policeman says his life sentence for killing the son of a local

militia commander is unfair. The conflict arose after Bo seized the official's son

in a sweep of forced conscription.

In a case that has yet to reach the court, Tang Tohn, 29, insists he is innocent

of the robbery charges leveled against him four months ago. He is not optimistic

about receiving a fair trial.

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