When authorities discovered 27-year-old Mom Rithy chained to a wall in a Preah Sihanouk province rental house, gagged, badly beaten and missing a finger, they took swift action.
They arrested three suspects – two Russians and a Ukrainian – for having allegedly bound and mutilated Rithy as punishment for attempting to steal a cheap cell phone. The next day the provincial court charged the trio for the illegal detention and torture.
Though the charges in Rithy’s case may have seemed like a no-brainer, many torture cases go unreported every year. Even those that are reported often go unresolved, said the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee and a handful of other rights groups at a conference on torture issues yesterday.
“In many cases, for us to convict a person, they use violence to make them confess,” said CHRAC Chairman Sok Sam Oeun at the event.
“The mandate of the investigating judge is to look into the evidence – both exculpatory and inculpatory evidence,” Sam Oeun, who is also executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, added. “But if he does not do so, they will still use the confession. So we must strengthen the capacity of judges.”
Many torture cases, he continued, go unpunished simply because torture is so ill-defined under Cambodian law.
“Many [civil society organisations] focus on how to lobby on law reform, but in the last few years, many donors focus more on the grassroots,” Sam Oeun said, noting that demonstrating to affect change can’t be effective unless the legislation is reformed as well.
“But if the definition of torture is not clear, do we think there is less torture? If the law is not clear, then no one will be prosecuted.”
The poor definition of torture is especially troublesome when victims are intimidated psychologically, instead of physically, said Ny Chakrya, head of the human rights and legal aid section of the rights group Adhoc.
“Sometimes police don’t have to beat them. They may do a cruel act to a person in the room next to them to make them scared,” he said.
Adhoc has observed at least 141 cases of torture since 2010, a figure Chakrya said was almost certainly incomplete. The rights group Licadho reported 135 torture complaints in 2011 alone, a nearly 30 per cent rise over 2010.
“We need more participation from the state agents,” Chakrya said. “NGOs should not be seen as the opponent.”
Police spokesman Khieu Sopheak denied that torture was commonplace in Cambodia, but said that in any country “they could not say that there is no torture of suspects – even in America”.
Even so, he added, police don’t get too cosy with suspects.
“In Cambodia, we never sampeah (a traditional greeting) the suspects,” he said.