After prodding from U.N. peacekeepers, the State of Cambodia (SOC) has begun to improve
prison conditions-abolishing the use of metal shackles-and release prisoners detained
In addition, U.N. officials recently discovered several government-administered prisons
previously unknown to them.
The Phnom Penh government released 70 prisoners on Sept. 2 who had been held for
long periods without trial in two prisons in the capital.
A government commission established to review the cases determined there was not
enough evidence to bring them to trial, said Dennis McNamara, who heads the Human
Rights section of the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The commission
was created in response to concerns raised by McNamara's office.
The prisoners appeared confused as they squatted in the central courtyard of Phnom
Penh's decaying T-3 prison, each holding a plastic bag containing a farewell gift
of clothing, a pair of slippers, and 1,000 riel.
"They recognized their faults and they have been educated. So now we have decided
to release them," said Top Chang, the deputy commissioner for police. Chang
said most had been imprisoned for robbing and cheating others.
Some inmates cried as they walked through the barbed wire gate to freedom. One angrily
threw his prison gift to the side of the road and sped off on the back of a motorcycle,
while others stood around not knowing where to go.
They said they had only learned the day before that they were being freed and had
no time to contact friends or family.
Meng Leang, 52, a toothless man with sunken cheeks, was cut off from his family during
10 years in jail.
"I spent so many years in jail," he said. "I wasted everything."
Meng Leang said he was jailed after being accused of failing to report the killing
of a woman who lived in his house.
He said he was held for much of the time in a five-by-ten-meter cell with as many
as 60 other inmates. Often he was shackled and fed nothing but rice and soup.
Jum Phan, 32, said police arrested her while she was eating noodles in a Phnom Penh
restaurant. "I don't understand why I was put here," said Phan, who spent
16 months in T-3.
Her baby, one month old at the time of her detention, died while she was in prison,
and her husband divorced her. "My child died because she didn't have her mother,"
Rus Eeun, 33, a farmer from Svay Rieng province, said he was accused of stealing
a bicycle during a visit to Phnom Penh. "This is very unjust," he said.
"The police forced me to say I stole the bicycle-otherwise they would whip me."
Eeun said he was shackled most of the five years he spent in T-3, except when he
was working as a cook in the prison.
"The decision to release you was made not by UNTAC but by the [SOC] Ministry
of National Security," UNTAC Human Rights Officer Bruce Henry told the inmates
during a short ceremony before their release.
"It shows that the Ministry of National Security recognizes that the principles
of human rights apply to prisoners," Henry said. "You're being released
into a society that now recognizes that you have human rights-but you should also
respect the human rights of others."
The Paris peace accords call for the Phnom Penh government and the three resistance
factions to respect human rights while UNTAC prepares the country for next year's
Last month, after UNTAC expressed concern about prison conditions, government authorities
abolished the use of metal shackles and sent seriously ill prisoners to hospitals.
The government also established the Prison Control Commission to improve health conditions
and food in the prisons and to review cases of prisoners to decide whether they should
be freed or brought to trial.
A reliable source who requested anonymity said in July that it appeared that less
than 10 percent of those held in prisons in Phnom Penh had been tried.
U.N. officials had been led to believe the government only had one military prison,
in Phnom Penh. But on Aug. 26, U. N. officials found two military prisons in Battambang,
255 kilometers northwest of Phnom Penh, according to UNTAC Spokesman Eric Falt.
One of the prisons, known as Tasaing, held 12 people and the other, called T-6, had
"Almost all had been subjected to cruel treatment, including lack of food,"
The Phnom Penh government had previously told UNTAC that it had freed all its political
prisoners. But at least four of those detained in Battambang's Tasaing prison were
political prisoners associated with resistance factions opposed to the Phnom Penh
Two UNTAC human rights officers recently inspected the military prison in Phnom Penh,
Falt said, where 94 inmates-mostly soldiers charged with serious crimes such as murder-are
"They found that conditions there were okay-there were no shackles," Falt
UNTAC has requested that the three other Cambodian factions take similar measures
to guarantee human rights, Falt said, although so far there has been no response.
"[They] claim they do not have prisoners," McNamara said.
- Sheila McNulty from Associated Press contributed to this report.