In an unanticipated act of leniency yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen established a new committee to deliver pardons to mothers jailed with their children, according to several attendees of the conference where the announcement was made.
“The prime minister ordered … a working group to immediately count all women in jail with their children in all prisons in Cambodia so that he can request pardons from the King before Khmer New Year,” said Serey Kosal, a senior minister.
The announcement – made in the middle of the National Council for Women’s annual gathering – appears to have caught even the ministries tasked with the amnesty scheme off-guard.
The new task force will fall under the Ministries of Justice, Interior and Women’s Affairs as well as the Council of Ministers. But when reached yesterday, multiple officials came up blank in response to their newly imparted responsibility.
“We have not heard anything,” said Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “It could be a decision made just [yesterday] morning.”
The announcement comes after local human rights group Licadho’s latest case study examining harsh conditions faced by children growing up inside Cambodian prisons.
For children born to incarcerated mothers, “early life behind bars can have devastating physical and psychological consequences”, the report, published this weekend, says.
As of November, Licadho counted 40 children under 4 years old who call prison home.
“This is a good decision not only for the women, but to benefit the children, who should not grow up as prisoners,” said Mom Sokchar of Legal Support for Women and Children.
In 2013, the US State Department called Cambodia’s notorious prison conditions “harsh and sometimes life threatening,” with a notable lack of access to food, sanitation, water and medical supplies.
“Women in Cambodian prisons need enhanced accessibility and availability of sexual and reproductive health services, as well as of psychosocial and mental health services. Their children need further support to get educational opportunities,” said Rodrigo Montero, advisor to GIZ’s Access to Justice for Women project.
Licadho called the announcement a welcome first step, but noted a need for long-term measures. “As a priority, the committee should urge judicial authorities to identify women with dependent children and pregnant women who are candidates for non-custodial sentences and advocate that judges take family circumstances into consideration when ordering detention,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the NGO.
As multiple judicial observers note, alternative sentencing has rarely been employed since it became an option in 2009.
In its trial monitoring project, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights found upwards of 60 per cent of monitored cases involved prison terms.