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Prison numbers jump 20 percent

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at a meeting launching the ministry’s annual report yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied
Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks at a meeting launching the ministry’s annual report yesterday in Phnom Penh. Photo supplied

Prison numbers jump 20 percent

Cambodia's already swollen prison population leapt by more than 20 percent last year, according to the Ministry of Interior’s annual report, which acknowledged the influx has caused “serious challenges” with overcrowding, and revealed one-third of inmates are in pre-trial detention.

Released at the ministry’s annual meeting yesterday, the report gave a rundown of the security sector’s activities in 2016, and also lauded the ministry’s suppression of protests, targeting of political dissidents and jailing of human rights workers.

It stated that 2016 saw a 3 percent rise in overall crime alongside a 22.8 percent increase in the prison population, with 13,635 people incarcerated last year and only 9,408 released. A further 76 prisoners died and three escaped.

Overall, it tallied 21,989 prisoners, including 1,781 women, 903 minors and 927 foreigners, with 40 percent of those jailed in 2016 locked up for drug offences, 10 percent for murder and 7.4 percent for aggravated robbery.

For the prison population overall, 7,495 were in pre-trial detention. Of the remaining 14,494, 8,028 have been sentenced but have not exhausted their avenues for appeal, while 6,466 have received a final verdict.

Acknowledging capacity issues, the report advocates for new facilities, increased staff, and for prison officials to be quickly notified of decisions to free prisoners.

“The high increase in prisoners in 2016 has caused prisons to face serious challenges of detainment room,” it states.

Reached yesterday, Interior Ministry spokesman for the General Department of Prisons Sorn Keo said authorities were working to increase the system’s capacity, including the construction of new buildings at Pursat’s Correctional Centre 4.

He said that, when finished, the facility would take prisoners from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, which currently houses 5,000 inmates despite being designed for just 1,200.

“Crowded prisons cause health issues, problems with food rations and accommodation,” Keo said. “In short, it affects all things.”

The report also notes plans to build two new buildings at Prey Sar and plans for a private company to build a new prison in Sihanoukville. Keo would not comment on the progress of a private facility for wealthy inmates at Prey Sar, first reported by The Post last year.

Speaking yesterday, Licadho director of advocacy Naly Pilorge said the organisation was unable to verify the numbers with its own prison-monitoring data, though the increase was in line with long-observed trends.

She said the government’s solution to build new prisons would not fix the problem, adding that the state’s approach to social issues such as drugs, which saw users imprisoned rather than treated, was a major factor in the continuing surge.

“You just can’t manage and treat problems in society, whether it is criminal or drug related, by putting everyone in prison,” said Pilorge.Meanwhile, with the prison population at a “breaking point”, Amnesty International researcher John Coughlan said, it was “crucial” to end the widespread use of pre-trial detention.

As for overall crimes in Cambodia, the Ministry cited 2,785 criminal cases in 2016, compared to 2,709 in 2015. It attributed the 3 percent rise to an increase in murder, rape and fraud cases along with an increase in protests and strikes.

Regarding the latter, it says demonstrations and strikes jumped to 1,089 in 2016 from 832 the year prior. It blamed this rise on land dispute claimants, employees unhappy with working conditions and groups “incited by a political party and some of civil society”, whom it called “extremists” that agitated about the “border issue, race and human rights” to “poison society”.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng echoed this sentiment in his speech at the event.“In our country, some extremists still have the desire to incite and attempt to trigger chaos and insecurity,” he said.

The report lauded the ministry’s “effective” suppression of protests, targeting of dissidents and arrest of five former employees from rights group Adhoc, which it claimed protected “security, stability and social safety”.

Further still, it claimed the arrests of the human rights workers who remain in pre-trial detention over “bribery” charges related to opposition leader Kem Sokha’s alleged affair and those of two students detained in separate cases over Facebook posts, had “received support from people and the public”.

The cases, all widely considered politically motivated, have drawn condemnation nationally and internationally.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHAUN TURTON

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