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Torture reform uncertain

A man lies on the ground next to patches of blood with his hands and feet bound after he was allegedly beaten and tortured by police in Prey Veng province last year. Photo supplied
A man lies on the ground next to patches of blood with his hands and feet bound after he was allegedly beaten and tortured by police in Prey Veng province last year. Photo supplied

Torture reform uncertain

Following last week’s US government report calling attention to torture in Cambodia’s prisons and Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s announcement the week before that the government committee tasked with torture prevention would be reformed, the body’s vice president said yesterday that he was unaware of what that might entail.

The US’s annual human rights report, published on Wednesday, alleges that “beatings and other forms of physical mistreatment of police detainees and prison inmates continued during the year”.

The report maintains that “kicking, punching, and pistol whipping were the most common methods of reported physical abuse, but authorities also used electric shock, suffocation, caning, and whipping with wires”, and also notes that forced confessions were “not uncommon”.

Several days prior, on April 8, Interior Minister Kheng told reporters at a hand-over ceremony for the new director of the General Department of Prisons that the government’s current Committee Against Torture was due for an overhaul.

“Now we will reform this committee into [one] which can be trusted by the public, starting from the restructuring of membership of this committee – membership for those who are independent,” he said.

What’s more, Kheng said, this time “the government will look at the United Nations principles that could lead to the appropriate restructuring of membership”.

Kheng also said that torture in prisons was “greatly reduced”, though the committee hasn’t made any findings public.

Since Cambodia ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against torture in 2007, it has failed to establish the requisite independent “National Prevention Mechanism” (NPM) to address and report on torture-related abuses.

Established in 2009, and superficially restructured in September, the government’s current committee is widely viewed as lacking impartiality.

However, the committee’s vice president, Nuth Sa An, said yesterday that he did not know what the reform might entail and referred questions back to Kheng, saying “it is his affair” before hanging up. Multiple Interior Ministry spokespeople could not be reached.

Meanwhile, Wan-Hea Lee, representative of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, in a statement expressed “hope” that the new national prevention mechanism would conform to the legal requirements of the Optional Protocol, “not least of which is the independence of the NPM from the very authorities whom it is responsible for monitoring”.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia Division, dismissed Kheng’s claim of improvement as “laughable” and the promise of reform as “word games”, suggesting that independent experts from the UN and NGOs be given access to prisons.

“Then we’ll get the real story rather than more of Sar Kheng’s fairy tales,” he said.

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