The government has signalled it will be stricter on pardoning prisoners convicted of drug crimes this Khmer New Year, amid political appeals and criticism of the clemency tradition’s lack of transparency.
Nuth Savana, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Prisons Department, said drug traffickers, armed thieves and prisoners who had committed “other serious offences that could affect social security” wouldn’t be released.
“I can’t estimate the number because this year we have become stricter,” Savana said.
“All ASEAN countries, not only Cambodia, are worried about drugs, which are on the increase in the region.
“[Inmates] are assessed on several criteria, such as if they have been rehabilitated and if we can trust them not to commit the offence again when they are out.”
Pardons, which typically occur three times a year – Khmer New Year, Meak Bochea Day and Water Festival – are delivered to inmates by a committee headed by the minister of justice.
Inmates who have served two-thirds of their sentence can be released, and those who have served one third of their time may have their sentence reduced.
Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek called for a formal, accountable process for pardons, with specific criteria, such as humanitarian need, rather than an ad-hoc “exchange for money”.
“Transparency is the key issue,” she said. “The total lack of clarity and accountability within the process inherently risks corruption.”
She said the current pardoning system was abused as a “political solution” and “bargaining tool”, which “allows the rule of law and the Cambodian courts to be overridden by behind-closed-door negotiations”.
Drug specialist David Harding said the tough-on-drugs approach cast a wide net, as there was a tendency to put all drug offences into a single category.
“It [trafficking] seems to cover the entire gamut of so-called drug crimes,” he said.
He added imprisoning addicts and users who needed medical support didn’t solve the problem and sometimes even exacerbated it.
Cambodia Rescue National Party spokesperson Yim Sovann also appealed for the release of jailed opposition activists and Senator Hong Sok Hour in the name of national unity, stressing their imprisonment was politically motivated.
“They should be released on humanitarian grounds and for the sake of the nation,” Sovann said.