In Cambodia, images of recently arrested accused sans clothing are relatively common, and some may say it’s nothing more than what they deserve. But whether it’s a deliberate tactic or a way to prevent self-harm, there’s an argument that stripping suspects is actually a breach of their human rights.
When Samnang* was arrested with a friend in September 2012 in Kampong Thom province’s Sandan district – they had been accused of stealing a moto and then getting into a brawl at a party – the then 20-year-old’s shirt was missing. It had been ripped off in the midst of the fight.
Then when they arrived at the district police station, the authorities had Samnang and his friend strip down even further. “They told me to take off my trousers,” he recalled. “And then they took a photo.”
Within hours, the photo of Samnang and his friend in their underwear handcuffed together holding the knife and belt supposedly used in the brawl was all over local and English language media.
But Samnang didn’t see it until later.
For the next three days, he was detained at the local police station in nothing but his underwear. It was only after he was transferred to the provincial station, and after another set of photos were taken, that he was he provided a fresh change of clothes.
“I still feel ashamed,” Samnang said this week.
Photos of alleged criminals in various states of undress routinely appear in local newspapers, on television and on social media in Cambodia – as well as on the official police-run Facebook page Cambodia National Police News. While the police offer varying rationales for the practice, NGOs claim it is a violation of human rights.
In one arrest photograph, taken on March 23 this year in Preah Vihear province, a 30-year-old fisherman with downcast eyes was pictured shirtless and handcuffed with the Honda Dream he allegedly had stolen.
Days earlier, in Kampong Thom, local authorities charged six people with fraud. In the arrest photo, the group is lined up against a wall – hands crossed, eyes down. Most are pictured in just their underwear, with the only suspect to retain a shirt the lone woman.
Taken in his smalls
Sometimes the police don’t even have to ask the suspect to strip. On the morning Ly Srea Kheng was arrested amidst a long-running land dispute, he was already barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of plain grey undershorts.
The 61-year-old recalls that plainclothes officers arrived at his home in Tuol Kork district without an arrest warrant and whisked him away, escorted by four motorbikes.
“When they came to arrest me, I was at home with my family. I was just wearing shorts,” Srea Kheng said in an interview in a new home outside Phnom Penh this week. “They just opened the car door and pushed me in.”
Claiming to be afraid that he would make a run for it, the officers gave him no time to grab a shirt, despite his protests.
In a scene photographed and published in national newspapers, including the Post, a dazed Srea Kheng was led into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in the same state – still with no shoes and no shirt – to appear in front of the judge. When his daughter, Ly Seav Minh, arrived with a fresh set of clothes, she too was detained.
That evening, Srea Kheng was taken to Prey Sar prison – where he finally received clothing – and remained for two weeks, until he and the company laying claim to the land he lived on reached an “agreement”. He still fears the police.
‘It doesn’t look good’
When asked this week about the recent Kampong Thom arrest photo, Mok Chito, the chief of central justice at the Interior Ministry’s police department, said that all police receive training in photography procedure, with instructions not to photograph suspects without clothes.
“If they are undressed, it doesn’t look good,” he added.
But interviews with other authorities revealed no consistent policy on the issue.
Some were blunt. “There is no law to determine whether to take off the clothes for the photo,” said a police official in the Kampong Thom district where the six fraud arrests occurred. “We just do it.”
The official, who did not want to be identified, suggested that suspects could use their clothes to create a means of escape or to commit suicide. “We don’t know what else we can do besides detain them without clothing,” he said. “What we can do is light up the mosquito incense for them.”
Some argued that stripping suspects was a matter of practicality.
“It’s a security matter. They are less likely to run away naked,” said a source that works within the criminal-justice system.
But others insisted that only those arrested at the scene without clothes would be photographed that way. Eav Chamroeun, the Kandal province police chief, said that during robberies and drug raids criminals arrested could be wearing ripped clothes, or none at all.
“It is never right to strip their clothes off,” he said.
A tool for interrogation
Photos of alleged criminals vary by setting, arresting officer and available technology. They contrast those taken under the Khmer Rouge regime at S-21, where the Cambodian “mugshot” was standardised, according to Eric Haanstad, an anthropologist who studies police culture in Southeast Asia.
“Nevertheless, they are used in repeated, ritualised ways,” Haanstad said via Skype this week from the University of Notre Dame, in the US. He said the main aim now, as then, was to elicit a confession from a subject.
Public shame is part of this coercion. And it’s not restricted to nudity: in 2010, police arrested nine teenagers for assault at a wedding in Battambang and shaved their heads as punishment.
Throughout Southeast Asia, Haanstad said, suspects are often photographed with the objects of their alleged crime: weapons, drugs, stolen phones, money or motorbikes.
In this way, the authorities may regard the photographs themselves as evidence, submitted as part of a police report. “It’s not an innocent before guilty model if the arrest is done. [The photo] is considered evidence of the crime,” Haanstad said.
Dr Chhim Sotheara, the executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization (TPO), said that it was possible that shame could play a role in eliciting a confession.
“I think Cambodian culture is different. We are shy. I think this kind of undress would be very shameful for the suspects,” Sotheara said this week. “And it is possible that to have [clothes] removed quickly may lead to forced confessions – people just want to get their clothes back.”
The public nature of the photographs could also have lasting psychological effects. “It is a shame that is carried with people,” he added.
The shame can extend to the suspect’s family, who are often not immediately notified of a relative’s arrest. It’s certainly the case for Seng Channy’s father, Sieng Khun.
Khun learned of his son’s arrest from his neighbours. “The police really did it wrong,” he said. “The villagers told me that they saw my son on TV. I was so disappointed – it was unimaginable.”
For Ly Srea Keng, the shame was simply dehumanising. “Even if I were a robber, they should have given me time to dress,” he told Post Weekend. “Am I an animal?”
Human rights violation
Human-rights advocates say that arrest photos – nude or not – violate suspects’ individual rights: to the presumption of innocence, to privacy, and even to a fair trial.
Under Cambodia’s 2009 Penal Code, photography in a private place without the express permission of the subject is illegal, with one exception: “for the purpose of ascertaining the truth”.
Photographs are an important part of a criminal inquiry, used to record and identify suspects, said Wan-Hea Lee, the representative in Cambodia for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
But any photographing of criminal suspects by police officials or journalists before conviction is “a concern”, given the application of international law – including protocol against “degrading treatment” – in the Kingdom’s courts, Lee said in an email to Post Weekend this week.
“When suspects are forced to partially strip, their right to privacy is further compromised,” she added.
Ouk Vandeth, the director of International Bridges to Justice, echoed this sentiment. “Law implementers always think, ‘Oh! This is acceptable’,” he said. “But actually, it is a great violation on the citizen’s rights.”
Under the 2009 Penal Code, suspects are not even afforded a defence lawyer until after spending 24 hours in police custody. Without a lawyer present, violations are much more likely to occur, Vandeth said, and suspects are often afraid and unaware of their rights.
In practice, according to defence lawyer Peung Yok Kiep, alleged criminals are often coerced into placing their thumbprints on a “confession” written in first person by police during this period. “The police tell them that if they answer quickly, they can go back home,” he said.
As the anthropologist Haanstad mentioned, arrest photographs can play into this coercion, and are often submitted to the court along with any pre-written confession.“The prosecutor and judge always accept the police reports,” Vandeth said.
Each of the police Post Weekend spoke to this week mentioned the role of journalists in the proliferation of arrest photos. Eav Chamroeun, in Kandal, called it “pernicious”.
In Cambodia, under the Law of the Press, journalists’ associations must abide by a code of ethics that includes respect of the right to privacy and the right to a fair trial, said Wan-Hea Lee, of the OHCHR. But in some cases, this respect is disregarded: “The media are often tacitly allowed to photograph suspects,” she said.
As Eric Haanstad sees it, the police actually rely on the media to communicate with the public, especially at the local level. “There used to be the police blotter – always in text. Without the photos or videos or TV, there’s no evidence that the police are doing anything at all,” he said.
For some news organisations, the line between publishing offensive photos and publishing the “truth” can be ethically thorny. (After considering the issue, the Post has decided to in the future crop or obscure the identities of accused criminals in such photos as much as practical.)
But ultimately, enforcing international and national law requires proper training and clear instructions for authorities at the local level, said Lee. “Not all these elements are in place in every local jurisdiction,” she said.
For now, even within jurisdictions, there seems to be little agreement or responsibility for nearly nude photos. Take, for example, the official in the Kampong Thom district responsible for stripping its six suspects last month.
“I think even though they are suspects, [the photos] should not be taken naked with just underwear,” he said. “But our colleagues do it [anyway].”
* Not his real name.