Sara Colm reports from Siem Reap on how a former prisoner is helping improve
conditions in the town's jail.
During the Khmer Rouge regime, Meas
Thunchey endured an 11-month ordeal of torture and hunger at the provincial
prison in Siem Reap town.
Now he spends a lot of time in the prison as a
human rights activist, regularly visiting the inmates to monitor conditions.
Thunchey, 45, is president of the Siem Reap chapter of ADHOC, Cambodia's
oldest and largest human rights organization.
When I accompanied
Thun-chey on one of his prison visits, he walked through the courtyard of the
French-built jail, shaking hands with the guards before checking whether anyone
was being held in one of two isolation cells.
As he passed through the
prison, several inmates slipped him letters to mail to relatives outside.
Bending over a prisoner with tuberculosis he said: "Have they given you
your medication today?"
Three years ago Thunchey's visits would have been
unthinkable. Not only were Cambodian human rights advocates barred from the
country's prisons, so were international rights organizations such as Amnesty
International and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
during UNTAC's 18-month term, international human rights monitors were allowed
to regularly inspect prisons - particularly those under the control of the State
Last September, when the UN's human rights mandate ended in
Cambodia, Siem Reap became the first province to allow Cambodian human rights
activists to take over UNTAC's prison monitoring role.
that in Cambodia, even prisoners have rights," says Thunchey, who knows
first-hand about human rights abuses.
A radio mechanic under the Khmer
Rouge regime, he was beaten, tortured, and thrown in prison for not fixing an
official's radio quickly enough.
On the day of Thunchey's visit, a dozen
inmates carrying hoes and shovels stream in from the outer yard of the prison,
where they have recently planted a large vegetable garden.
inner courtyard, other inmates are chopping and cleaning freshly-picked
watercress and cabbage, while others hammer away at carpentry projects or crouch
over smoky hibachis, grilling small fish.
The mood is active and upbeat,
more so than 18 months ago when UN monitors first entered the prison.
that time, shackling, torture and isolation of inmates in dark cells was
commonplace in many Cambodian prisons and many prisoners were not tried.
The Siem Reap jail was overcrowded and lacked toilets and adequate
bathing facilities. Many of the inmates were gaunt and thin and suffered from
skin diseases; the daily food rations consisted of a plate of rice, plus a small
fish every other day.
UN human rights officers collected complaints from
inmates, secured the release of political prisoners, and worked with staff from
the prison and the provincial court to improve conditions and insure that trials
were conducted in a more timely manner under a transitional penal code adopted
by the Supreme National Council.
Thunchey has built on UNTAC's work after
its departure, enlisting several international agencies based in Siem Reap to
help work on development proj-ects in the prison.
In the last four
months, there have been dramatic changes at the prison and in the appearance of
the inmates, many of whom have gained weight and are wearing clean new uniforms.
The improvements are due to the collaboration of several organizations.
The World Food Program provides rice, oil, and canned fish, Ecole Chantiers
repaired several prison doors, Church World Service provided new mosquito nets
and sleeping mats, Action International Contre le Faim installed wells and
pumps, Concern built latrines and provided seed and tools for the vegetable
garden, and the International Committee of the Red Cross painted the prison.
In addition, several other NGOs, including ADRA, Redd Barna, and UNHCR,
provide general support to ADHOC in their prison monitoring and negotiations
with local officials.
Major Chan Sitha, who became prison director last
September, says he is eager to continue the collaboration with ADHOC and the
"I have meetings with the prisoners, and we run things more
democratically than before," he said. "The treatment is better and there's more
food, so people don't try to escape."
Several other ADHOC branch-es have
followed the lead given by their colleagues in Siem Reap and begun monitoring
their provincial prisons, including Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong
Chhnang, and Kompong Cham.
ADHOC started its Siem Reap operation in
November 1992, initially borrowing classroom space at Wat Bo before renting its
own office near Psah Leu.
It now boasts 5,000 members, of whom more than
4,000 have gone through a five-day training course in human rights. The
organization receives about ten human rights complaints each month, which they
do their best to investigate.
"We have very good cooperation with the
police and the court and feel free to bring up any problem with them," Thunchey
says. Now that a new governor has been appointed, he is hopeful ADHOC will
receive approval to open offices and conduct training classes in the rural
"If people don't understand about their rights we will never
have peace in Siem Reap or the whole country," says Thunchey. "Otherwise, people
only know how to abuse each other and there can be no unity."
Janssen, UNHCR Field Officer for the province said: "I'm really impressed by the
situation in Siem Reap. [Court] cases are progressing, and at least there's a
"The judge has the ability to make decisions, and the
governor has promised to support ADHOC.These are quite important improvements.
Now that prison conditions and treatment of prisoners are improving,
the main challenge for Siem Reap ADHOC, Thunchey says, is to improve court
procedures so that a backlog of prisoners awaiting trial can be dealt with.
In fact, when the UN Special Representative for Human Rights in
Cambodia, Justice Michael Kirby, visited the country last month, he said that
prisoners' complaints were primarily about the court system, not their treatment
One of the main tasks facing the newly-opened
field office in Phnom Penh of the UN Centre for Human Rights is to train and
advise legal professionals in the justice system.
Shortly before UNTAC
closed down its human rights component in Siem Reap last September, an inmate
slipped a UN human rights officer a handwritten note.
improved a lot here in the prison since UNTAC has been here," the inmate had
written. "We worry that when you return to your country, things will return to
the old ways here - when we were often beaten and mistreated."
four months later, the work of ADHOC and its network of allies in Siem Reap may
help to insure that the inmates worst fears won't be realized.
- Sara Colm worked as UNTAC Human Rights Officer in Siem Reap from