As daylight fades, Roth Sokha’s silhouette, cast against the Siem Reap skyline onto a rust-hued road, looks otherworldly - a slight figure, with luminous skin, he sits cross-legged, his oversized work overalls draped around him, and fixates his gaze on the amber glow of a cigarette discarded nearby.
Sokha is nervous, our translator explains. The 19-year-old hasn’t spoken about the last three years of his life to many people.
Almost a year ago, Sokha was released from Siem Reap prison, a model prison within the country, many NGOs claim, with indigo blue walls and replete with Alice in Wonderland-esque statues in the garden..
Yet it’s a jail still aeons away from meeting standards set by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, despite Cambodia having ratified and acknowledged the convention in its constitution.
Three and a half years ago, the teenager and four of his friends , all 15, lived in a slum area on the fringes of Siem Reap town.
He was often bored, he says, while his parents made a living for their five children through their respective jobs - his father as a motodop driver and his mother a bobor rice porridge seller.
“A few of my friends could play music and we thought it would be fun to borrow a keyboard from a local school and mess around…we were always going to take it back,” he reflects.
They took the instruments from the school, goofed around and Sokha says he then watched his friends cart them home.
The next day he was called to the school where police were waiting - the boys had left their shoes and shirts at the site.
They were charged with theft and immediately whisked away to pretrial detention in the district’s prison: six months waiting for a trial in a cramped, concrete cell, crowded with people.
Sokha was then sentenced and locked up for a further two years.
He says he was staggered when he found out he had been charged.
“I denied any involvement at first, I was scared, and so they took us to the police station, then the provincial court and then prison.
I couldn’t see my mother, my family. We had to pay for a lawyer but my family have no money…
“They treated us very badly, the police hit us.”
He says one of his friend’s ears was thrashed so violently by police that it wouldn’t stop bleeding.
“They did not call a doctor to help. I was terrified,” he says, his velvety voice almost a whisper.
Civil society groups both across the country and overseas continue to express distress over the situation Cambodian minors face when coming into conflict with the law.
On Thursday, a cohort of ministers, government officials, prison directors, members of the Bar Association of Cambodia, UN agencies and NGOs arrived in Siem Reap for the country’s first National Justice for Children Conference.
The two-day meeting, organised by the Ministry of Justice, UNICEF and Australian organisation Children’s Rights International (chaired by Alastair Nicholson, a former chief justice of the family court of Australia) aimed to broadly discuss an overhaul of the justice system for children who came into contact with the law for whatever reason - whether alleged offenders, victims, witnesses or those in custody.
Despite being drafted by the Ministry since 2002, there is no juvenile justice system in Cambodia. Those between 14 and 18 are tried in the adult system and detained in adult prisons.
The number of children in prison has almost doubled from 2005, when there were 403 under 18-year-olds detained. By 2010, there were 772 juveniles locked up in adult detention,, according to statistics from the Ministry of Interior’s prison department.
Despite the increase, experts say access to justice for juveniles is almost nonexistent with limited legal aid provided, detainment in adult prisons and the denial of rights to legal counsel
According to human rights group Licadho, who monitors 18 of the nation’s 27 jails, prisons are heaving in Cambodia. Their 2012 report estimates jails to be at 170 per cent of their capacity.
Child offenders face the same abysmal conditions as adults in Cambodian jails, Licadho Prisons advocacy consultant Jeff Vize says inmates are allotted just 70 cents a day for food, water is often unsafe and scarce, violence is rife, corruption manifests and prisoners often receive just 0.7 square metres of space in a cramped, shared cell.
“There is a grave risk that time spent in prison will seriously stunt a juvenile’s development…further immerse them in the criminal element of society and rob them of other development opportunities. It’s always better to keep a child out of prison if at all possible,” he says.
Sokha’s tone becomes distant when asked about his experience in prison.
“There were many children in the prison. They had all committed different crimes. Yes, there were gangs and other kids that had killed people, but also those there for stealing phones.”
He says he shared a cell with up to 30 other minors, sleeping on a mouldy, concrete floor, without a mat or blanket.
“On the first night I was so scared…the guards told the other (young) prisoners to hit me…sometimes the adult prisoners beat us too…it was often encouraged by the guards, when we did something they didn’t like,” he says.
“There was so much violence and fighting. I remember seeing a man beaten to a pulp, almost to death. He was unconscious and bleeding so much. I saw another man chained like a dog.
“I saw many illnesses and there was a lot of sickness - the patient was just left there until it was life-threatening. Some didn’t come back.
“The worst part of being in prison was that everything in prison requires money. I was under a lot of pressure; my parents simply did not have this money.”
Sokha now works as a mechanic for a demining organisation in the country’s north-west.
He was assisted while in prison by community development organisation This Life Cambodia (TLC), which provides vocational training - motor and electronic courses - for juvenile detainees in Siem Reap, and now Banteay Meanchey, prisons.
He was lucky. There are currently 1362 adults in Siem Reap prison, with about 59 juvenile offenders jailed alongside them, and TLC assist 14 students there, supplementing the workshops with visits by social workers, health speakers and visitation activities.
They work with another 18 students in Banteay Meanchey prison while a further 12 students they have worked with who have been released after serving their sentences in Siem Reap have not reoffended.
“One of the most important things we do is connecting families to children that are incarcerated; there are lots of barriers for families,” executive director and founder Billy Gorter says.
“The law is contrary - it is supposedly, under article 37c, free for visitation in prisons, yet in reality, families are paying fees at several points when they visit, plus the cost of transport”
“Every single family we have worked with has taken up our offer of assistance with visitation, it’s one of the biggest successes in terms of children reintegrating back into communities - often (children) will not go back if families have not visited in fear of being stigmatised or not wanted,” he says
The government are adamant the juvenile justice law will be submitted to the Council of Ministers for approval and passed next year, claiming the lag had been necessary for thorough “research and studies,” Ith Rady, Under Secretary of State in Ministry of Justice, says.
UNICEF, in September, flagged the urgent need for diversion programs for youth offenders in Cambodia, where minor crimes are dealt with by community leaders or a warning system. For more serious crimes, the child would be referred to a structured diversion program.
Gorter agrees: “Children who you see in prison generally comprise of the poor and vulnerable …kids are getting two and a half years for stealing a necklace, or food, for a first offence. Diversion programs have been proven to steer children away from the prison system.”
“TB and HIV are rife in prisons…they’re given two meals a day…it’s a very harsh environment,” he says.
Sok Sovanna*, 22, is a poignant illustration of this, sitting in his indigo prison pyjamas.
In 2009, at the age of 19, he already had a wife and eight-month-old daughter. He was sentenced that year to eight years in jail, accused of being an accomplice to murder: he says he only picked his friend up from a violent brawl.
“We drove away on my moto and I didn’t know anyone had died...later that night my friend fled, and the next morning the police arrested me…a witness had seen my moto,” he says.
His brother, 27-year-old Sok Smey*, who sits on the other side of the latticed window in Siem Reap prison’s visitation room, looks years younger than his little brother: Sovanna’s grey-flecked hair, weathered face and blackened teeth reflect the callous conditions he lives in.
“My family are very poor and I feel heartbroken that my brother lives like this - but my parents spent their life savings, $1000, on a lawyer for him and nothing came of it.”
Children’s Rights International, fronted by the high-profile Alisdair Nicholson, are working with Legal Aid Cambodia and other NGOs such as UNICEF, to nudge the government into passing the law.
“One of the major resources for these children that is lacking is legal assistance… the number of lawyers is limited, the number of those experienced with children is even less… a lot of children who get into trouble don’t have money, so it’s left to NGOs to provide support.
Most kids go through the courts and police interviews without any assistance; some don’t even have their parents there.”
“The biggest hurdle is the attitude towards children and the traditional thinking that strong and heavy punishment is the best solution - in Cambodia 90 per cent of children do not get bail and they are often locked up pretrial, yet only three per cent in Australia are locked up before trial.”
“The long term effects…if things don’t change (with the juvenile judicial system)… on this country will be devastating and the crime rate will soar as a huge percentage of Cambodians are young,” he says.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the subject interviewed.
To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at [email protected]