After struggling for almost a year to raise her child behind bars, 22-year-old Bopha* burst into tears yesterday as she took her first steps towards freedom.
“I am so happy; it’s as if I’m born again,” she said, as she cradled her 11-month-old son.
Bopha was one of 22 female inmates in prisons around the country to be offered clemency on International Women’s Day yesterday.
The women’s release was at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who called last month for pregnant inmates and mothers jailed with their children to be pardoned.
The 22, whose identities the government asked to be kept secret out of consideration for the well-being of their children, had received prison sentences ranging from one to 15 years. More than half were convicted for drug offences.
All but one had children living with them in prison, while the remaining woman was pregnant.
At a ceremony at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, officials from the ministries of Justice, Interior and Women’s Affairs presented seven prisoners being released there and their children with a towel, a scarf, two cans of formula milk, and 150,000 riel (around $37) to mark their release.
Bopha, who was sentenced in 2013 to five years in prison under charges relating to prostitution, said she was forced to wash clothes for other inmates to support her son. She earned just $12 a month.
“Living in prison is very difficult; we had no money, and not enough medicine,” she said. “My baby and I slept on the floor with six other inmates, and I worked for others in order to raise him.”
In a speech yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated his commitment to getting children out of the country’s prisons.
“I do not want them to be born to see the situation in the prison,” he said.
The premier once again called for more releases before Khmer New Year next month, but said the clemency should not be taken as a green light for women to commit crimes.
“We do not want any encouragement for women who are pregnant and have children to commit crimes . . . the most important thing here is the children,” he said.
If a pregnant woman commits a crime, “the unborn baby who knows nothing also has to be punished. Moreover, the baby who is 1 year old, 2 or 3 years old and is in the prison is the unfortunate one”.
Hun Sen also defended his push for the releases, arguing that the Prisons Law allows him to request Royal Pardons.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua welcomed yesterday’s releases, but said more still needed to be done.
“When I was behind bars, I saw them come every morning, the mothers with their children. These women are among the poorest. They didn’t have enough money to buy the extra stuff they needed like water and bread”, she said.
She called for efforts to stop crimes in the first place, and to support the women and children when they leave prison.
“The release alone is not enough,” she said.
While the 22 women celebrated their release yesterday, hundreds of protesters marched from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to Prey Sar prison carrying coffins symbolising the death of rights and justice in Cambodia, and demanding the release of 11 female land activists.
At about 11am, Dangkor district police forces seized the two coffins, but the protesters continued their march to the prison.
Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap said the protesters’ views were not shared by the majority of citizens.
“In general, it is evaluated that the justice system is in the process of reformation,” he said. “We respect the women’s rights, but if women commit crimes, they must be punished.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY