The use of torture in today's Cambodia is as undeniable as the torture of Cambodia's
tragic past, according to a new report by the Cambodian League for the Promotion
and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho). Entitled Less Than Human - Torture
in Cambodia, the report was issued on June 26, the United Nations International
Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Jason Barber presents edited extracts
from his report.
TORTURE is an everyday occurrence in Cambodia. People are regularly and routinely
beaten black and blue with punches and kicks. They are hit with batons, iron bars,
gun butts, pieces of wood or other objects, subjected to electric shocks, whipped
with wire, bamboo, rope or belts.
Some are nearly suffocated with pieces of plastic, or have their feet crushed under
wooden or iron bars. For many victims, torture includes rape or other sexual abuse.
Aside from physical torture, methods of psychological torture include prolonged unlawful
detention, verbal intimidation and death threats, mock executions and physical assaults
or threats against relatives of victims.
Torture has existed in Cambodia, as in many other countries, for centuries, including
during the famed Angkorean civilization, but Cambodians need no reminding that torture
is not consigned to ancient history. The most notorious practitioners of torture
in modern Cambodia - the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot - haunt the memories
of many Cambodians today. Virtually the entire population was tortured or subjected
to other extreme traumas in one way or another by the Khmer Rouge.
Decades later, some of Pol Pot's torture methods are still in use. Torture is inflicted
on men, women and children in Cambodia, and many victims receive this treatment at
the hands of those who are supposed to protect society: police officers, soldiers,
government bodyguards and others in positions of authority.
The single biggest reason why torture is permitted to flourish in Cambodia into the
21st Century is the lack of accountability before the law of criminals who hold power
Prohibitions against torture - contained in Cambodia's Constitution (1993) and criminal
law (1992), as well as by the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other
Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment - mean little or nothing to a
torture victim or a torturer.
The government, police and judiciary, by failing to meet their legal obligations
to investigate and prosecute torture cases, are accomplices to torture.
In recent years, the number of torture-related prosecutions of police or prison officers,
for example, can be counted on one hand. As for convictions and prison sentences,
there appears to have been only one: a military policeman who spent four months in
jail for beating a teenage boy who died in custody.
When torture cases are brought to their attention, government officials, judges,
prosecutors, police and military chiefs usually turn a blind eye, thereby explicitly
permitting and implicitly encouraging the use of torture.
As such, Cambodian torture victims are victimized repeatedly - first by the torturers,
and then by a government and judicial system which at best ignores the victims and
at worst condones the barbaric and illegal treatment of them. They are often further
victimized by the economic consequences of torture, as their physical or psychological
injuries make it difficult for them to earn a living.
Torture is just one part of the pervasive violence in current-day Cambodia whose
impacts stretch far beyond individual victims. Countries that permit torture invariably
permit other grave crimes and human rights abuses. Police and other officials who
commit torture invariably commit other crimes.
The practice of torture is directly counter to the rule of law, and perpetuates Cambo-dia's
climate of impunity for those who hold power and of fear for those who do not.
Both contribute to the cycle of violence and repression that has marred Cambodia
for decades, hindering the country's social, economic and legal development.
While torture for political reasons has been publicized in recent years (in the aftermath
of the July 1997 violent disintegration of the coalition government, for instance),
the majority of torture committed in Cambodia is for nonpolitical reasons.
The most institutionalized use of torture occurs in police stations. To be arrested
in Cambodia is a dangerous affair; violence, or the threat of it, is routinely used
to secure confessions from criminal suspects. Torture is a common criminal investigation
technique, tolerated by all levels of the police and judiciary.
As well as in police stations, torture also occurs in prisons, mainly as punishment
for attempted escape or other discipline breaches, and in military camps and other
As for civilian places of torture, the pain and suffering inflicted in brothels or
private homes on victims of sexual trafficking and domestic violence can be as horrific,
if not more so, as the torture committed in state custody. In both sexual trafficking
and domestic violence, the physical, sexual and psychological torture unleashed on
women and children is often extreme; the victims are kept in a virtually continual
state of misery and terror.
Torture is about treating people as though they are less than human. Torturers invariably
dehumanize their victims, labelling them as enemies, criminals or possessions, and
therefore implicitly justifying barbaric treatment of them, as though they were animals
or objects of lesser or no value.
The people who have lost their humanity are, of course, the torturers, not the tortured.
Cambodia historian David Chandler, writing about torture under the Pol Pot regime,
quoted sociologist Zygmunt Bauman's comment about the Holocaust and its perpetrators:
"The most frightening news was not the likelihood that this could be done to
us, but the idea that we could do it."
Half a century after the Holocaust, and 20 years after the end of Pol Pot's rule,
the question of how and why someone can become a torturer remains seemingly incomprehensible.
For the victims, the torture continues long after the torturers cease their work.
Torture takes an incalculable toll on victims, extending far beyond black eyes, broken
bones, bruises and scars. A myriad of psychological problems - such as fear, anxiety,
depression, nightmares - can plague the lives and souls of survivors for years, if
The psychological distress of victims, and their loss of dignity and their loss of
faith in fellow humans, also defies adequate description or comprehension. But it
is widely accepted that the psychological consequences of torture are immense, and
often far more debilitating than the physical injuries.
In Cambodia, for example, no one doubts the ongoing psychological suffering caused
by the Khmer Rouge and years of war. Yet scant regard is paid to the psychological
pain inflicted on today's torture victims, most of whom are left to suffer alone
and in silence.
Concerted action to combat torture is long overdue. There is an urgent need for greater
education of police, other officials and the general populace, as well as prosecutions
of offenders and assistance to victims, and most importantly the establishment of
practical safeguards for people at most risk of being tortured.
Such action is vital to begin to heal the scars of the past,
reduce the infliction of new wounds, and break the cycle of violence and trauma in
Here is a case study from Less Than Human: Torture in Cambodia. Names and other
identifying details have been changed.
After arresting Keo and taking her to a police station, the police knew exactly what
to do with her. "To begin with, I was taken to a small room, an office that
the police worked in. They closed the doors and windows and started to beat me,"
recalls Keo, a thin, short woman aged in her late 30s. "They beat me and interrogated
me for about one hour. There were a lot of police, about six or seven. Some kicked
me. Some hit me with a wooden stick. They beat me on my thigh and kicked me in the
middle of my back. I felt weak and later I fell unconscious."
It was in the early hours of the evening, and Keo had just been arrested at her home
and taken to a district police station in Phnom Penh. There, she was interrogated
about an alleged robber named Chantha. "They asked me 'Do you know Chantha?'.
I said that I don't know him, but they tried to force me to say yes. They said that
I must know this man." After being repeatedly slapped, kicked and hit with a
stick, Keo eventually succumbed to unconsciousness.
"When I woke up, I was in a cell. It was a very dark place, with no electric
light. The only light was from one candle. There was no window, only one candle,"
recalls Keo of the cell, which was about 3 x 4 meters large. There were other prisoners
there - one woman and 10 or 11 boys. The boys were accused of theft. When Keo woke
up, the other woman prisoner came to help her and gave her a massage to try to ease
The next morning, about 4am, Keo was taken out of the cell and put into a car with
about five policemen. For several hours, they drove around Phnom Penh city, demanding
that she point out where the man named Chantha lived. Keo continued to deny that
she knew the man, saying "I cannot show you where he lives if I don't know him".
The police were not satisfied.
"They took me back to the police station. They beat me again, in another room,
a bigger room. There were many police officers, about 10 or 11. I was terrified.
They beat me with wire on my thigh, on both my thighs. Many police beat me. One man
whipped me with the wire and then put the wire on the table. Then another one picked
up the wire and started again. They did this for about 10 minutes. At the same time,
they kicked me on my back, with their boots. They said 'Where is Chantha and where
is the gold that you took?' I just said 'I don't know, I don't know'.
"After that, they used the plastic bag. The interrogator was very angry. He
got a plastic bag to cover my head. My hands were cuffed when they used the plastic
bag. At that time, they stopped beating me. They put the bag on my head for five
or six minutes and I fell unconscious."
Keo woke up to find herself back in the same cell. She could not walk. Again, other
detainees massaged her and tried to help her move to a more comfortable position.
Someone gave her some medicine to drink, and she felt a little better.
The next day, the third day of Keo's detention, "they beat me again and told
me to fingerprint a piece of paper. On the paper, they wrote whatever they wanted
and told me to fingerprint it. They wrote that I was an accomplice to robbery, that
I had directed many men to commit robberies." Keo was given the choice of fingerprinting
the confession and being sent to court, or buying her freedom from the police with
"They asked me for $2,000 and then they would release me. I said that I didn't
do anything, so I did not want to pay. They said that (...) I must have a lot of
money. I said no, I didn't," she says. "At that time, if my relatives had
been at the police station, I would have told them to give money to the police. I
would have done anything I could to avoid being beaten." Eventually, Keo fingerprinted
the confession because "I was afraid".
Keo's signing of a confession allowed her to avoid further beatings, but she remained
at the police station for a further week. "The police did not want to send me
to prison because they thought the prison would not accept me - my health was so
bad." Instead, the police kept Keo at the station, apparently to allow time
for her wounds to begin to heal. Eventually, 10 days after her initial arrest and
detention, she was taken to a Phnom Penh prison.
[Postscript:] Keo was later treated by Licadho medical staff in prison. She walked
with a limp and in obvious pain. She complained of severe chest pain, and bore a
palm-sized bruise on her chest. Large bruises, and some obvious whip marks, were
on her legs, back and buttocks. She complained of blurred vision, headaches and insomnia.
Keo did not want to complain about the torture by the police, as she was too frightened.
She was subsequently convicted of complicity in robbery and sentenced to 12 months
in prison, which she served. Near the end of her sentence, Keo still complained of
health problems: chest pains, palpitations, headaches and weakness. She was also
convinced that she had a heart problem. She also suffered insomnia and, when she
could fall asleep, had nightmares. "At night, I am terrified. When I sleep,
I get bad dreams. Or if I am awake, and another prisoner touches me, I am terrified."
'I would have done anything I could to avoid
TO be arrested in Cambodia is one of the surest ways to face the prospect of torture.
The police routinely use torture to try to extract confessions from criminal suspects
or extort money from them.
Nearly 25% of prison inmates in Cambodian prisons allege that they were threatened,
intimidated or tortured by the authorities who arrested them, according to Licadho
interviews with prisoners. Of a total of 2,333 pre-trial and convicted inmates surveyed
at 20 prisons, 567 (or 24.4%) reported that they were abused by the arresting authorities.
Of the inmates who reported abuse, 429 (or 75%) cited acts of serious physical violence.
Beating and kicking, without weapons, were the most common forms of torture cited
by these inmates. Other, more serious forms of torture were not uncommon: 36% of
these inmates reported that they were beaten with solid objects other than firearms
(wooden sticks, iron bars, etc); 14% were hit with firearms; 7% had their limbs crushed
(usually by police standing or jumping on top of shackles, handcuffs or wooden or
iron bars placed across detainees' legs, feet, arms or hands); 5% were whipped (usually
with electrical wire or rope); and 5% were subjected to electric shocks.
Some inmates suffered more than one form of torture, and many were tortured on more
than one occasion. Of the 429 inmates, 44 (10.5%) stated that they fell unconscious
at least once.
Virtually all of the tortured inmates - who included women and children - were handcuffed,
shackled or tied up during the abuse, to prevent escape or attempts to defend themselves.
In some cases, inmates said they were blindfolded, or beaten in dark rooms, so they
could not see their torturers' faces. Food and water deprivation was common. Physical
violence or deprivations were often accompanied by psychological abuse, the most
common form of which was death threats.
The statistics cover mistreatment by arresting authorities; they do not include torture
committed in prisons after detainees were sent there. In most cases, the arrests
and alleged abuse was committed by police or military police, but in some cases other
state agents - soldiers, militiamen, village chiefs, etc - were involved.
Most of the reported torture occurred during interrogation, and was designed to extract
confessions to suspected crimes. Attempts to extort money from detainees, on the
promise of being released, were also frequently cited.
Some inmates provided confessions without even knowing it. Of those inmates who said
they were knocked unconscious during police torture, four stated that they woke up
to find ink on their fingers or thumbs - they had fingerprinted "confessions"
while they were unconscious. One of them said that when he regained consciousness,
he was told that the interrogation was finished and he could stop protesting his
innocence, as he had already confessed.
The alleged crimes committed by the inmates who were abused by the police or other
authorities ranged from murder to illegal fishing.
Of the 567 inmates who alleged they were threatened, intimidated or tortured by the
police or other arresting authorities, at least 36 (or 6%) were subsequently released
from prison because the courts acquitted them or dropped the criminal charges against
them. A further 24 inmates (4%) were granted bail or temporary release from prison
by the courts.
The statistics on official violence against criminal suspects are indicative only,
and not comprehensive. They cover only those arrested people who ended up in prison
(and not those who were arrested but then released by the police for whatever reason),
and who were interviewed by Licadho and answered questions about violence. The proportion
of inmates who were allegedly abused in police custody is likely to be underreported;
some inmates are likely to be too frightened to speak about torture.
While Cambodian and international law may prohibit torture, the reality is that many
police see nothing wrong with it. This is perpetuated by social attitudes that (alleged)
criminals deserve whatever treatment they get, and by a long-standing police and
judicial reliance on confessions as evidence against suspects.
"The police don't see themselves as torturers. It's just a way to get something
done - if you want a statement of confession, this is what you do," says a former
national law enforcement official. Adds a former provincial policeman of eight years'
experience: "The police think that if they get one confession, they have found
one criminal - they think they've done a good job."
Coincidentally, nearly 90% of prison inmates - whether they were tortured or not
- say they provided confessions to the police, according to Licadho interviews.
At the heart of the police's use of torture to secure forced confessions is the police's
common practice of arresting someone and then seeking evidence against them, rather
than vice versa. Prosecutors and judges - by accepting forced confessions as evidence
against criminal suspects, in violation of constitutional prohibitions on the admissibility
of involuntary confessions in criminal trials - are complicit in the abuse of police
A major problem, which invites abuses such as torture, forced confession and unlawful
prolonged detention, is that many arrested people are detained incommunicado at police
stations, without the ability to communicate with a friend, relative, lawyer or other
outsider. Furthermore, the police know that the courts frequently ignore allegations
of torture put before them. As a Phnom Penh prosecutor in a 1996 trial reportedly
yelled at a defendant who complained of forced confession under police duress, "Court
hearings [are] not the place for complaints about police misconduct".
In short, police commit torture because it is the easiest way to gain "evidence"
- usually in the form of a confession from a suspect. They also commit torture because
they know they can get away with it.
Police torture 'just a way to get something done'