HUNDREDS of prisoners nationwide are being denied their appeal right due to a lack of infrastructure and an inefficient bureaucracy, according to a report from local rights group Licadho.
The report, titled In Absentia: The Right to Appeal and Cambodia’s Inmate Transportation Crisis, was released publicly earlier this month after initially being distributed to government officials and rights workers in March. Citing government data, it says that more than 500 prisoners with pending appeals are detained in provincial prisons with little hope of securing transportation to the Kingdom’s only Appeal Court, located in Phnom Penh, for their hearings.
“Due to Cambodia’s near total lack of a long-distance inmate transportation network, these inmates are at grave risk of being denied one of the most basic elements of a fair trial: The right to have a conviction and sentence properly reviewed by a higher tribunal,” the report states.
Heng Hak, director of the prisons department at the Ministry of Interior, said he did not have statistics on the number of prisoners with appeals currently pending, but acknowledged a “lack of services” available for this group.
“The government has no policy in place to support prisoners pursuing appeals because we lack materials and funding for that,” Heng Hak said.
“But we are not ignoring this problem – right now, we are in discussions with the Appeal Court and the UN to find ways to solve this problem.”
Heng Hak noted that other countries have addressed this issue through the use of video-conferencing between courts and detention facilities, so that prisoners may participate in hearings without being physically present.
Much of the problem can be traced to a simple lack of resources. Provincial prison directors told Licadho that they did not have enough workers to spare personnel for trips to Phnom Penh, and could not afford to pay overtime in any case. Though vehicles are often available thanks to donations from foreign governments and NGOs, lack of fuel is a persistent problem – one official told Licadho that his facility receives only 800 litres of petrol per month, or enough to run generators for just three hours each day.
Appeal Court general prosecutor Ouk Savuth said it was incumbent upon prisons to provide their prisoners with transportation to court hearings.
“If this doesn’t happen, it’s an obstacle for prisoners to secure a fair appeal hearing,” Ouk Savuth said.
The majority of the Kingdom’s prisoners who are pursuing appeals seem to face this obstacle.
A court-monitoring study released in March by the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation found that of 179 trials observed at the Appeal Court, defendants appeared at just 31 percent.
Although tight budgets and overcrowding have long been problems for the Kingdom’s correctional system – Heng Hak said there are roughly 14,000 prisoners being held in facilities that were built to house just 8,000 – the Licadho report identifies several ways in which the government could immediately address the challenges facing prisoners seeking appeals.
First, the report recommends that prisoners with pending appeals not be transferred away from prisons near the Appeal Court, including Prey Sar, Takhmao and PJ prisons. In September, Licadho says, three such prisoners were transferred from Prey Sar to Kampong Cham province’s CC3 prison.
The report also calls for cell space at Prey Sar, Takhmao and PJ to be prioritised for prisoners pursuing appeals. Prison officials said that as of January, just 1 percent of convicted prisoners housed at those facilities were appealing their convictions. In seven prisons outside of Phnom Penh for which Licadho was able to obtain data, by contrast, 18 percent of convicted prisoners had appeals pending.
This included CC3 prison, where 25 percent of convicted inmates had appeals pending as of October, and Sihanoukville prison, where 20 percent had appeals pending as of January.
Prison officials, Licadho added, must survey and keep track of the status of their inmates’ appeals, and prison and court officials must do a better job of communicating with one another.
Licadho project consultant Jeff Vize said in an email on Wednesday that a long-term investment in the transportation infrastructure of the prison system would allow the Kingdom to ameliorate overcrowding and guarantee more prisoners their fundamental legal rights.
“A transport system would have benefits beyond simply taking inmates to and from trial,” he said.