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Unique hurdles exist for female offenders: report

Women prisoners carry their possessions out of Prey Sar after being released in 2015. A new report highlights the narratives of Cambodian women convicted of homicide.
Women prisoners carry their possessions out of Prey Sar after being released in 2015. A new report highlights the narratives of Cambodian women convicted of homicide. Vireak Mai

Unique hurdles exist for female offenders: report

Women convicted of homicide in Cambodia reported they were coerced to sign documents they could not read and were often roped into a corrupt justice system by the men in their lives, according to new research.

The report, published earlier this month, sheds light on some of the Kingdom’s darkest and most misunderstood corners by exploring the narratives of 18 women incarcerated for homicide.

“The takeaway is how frequently women’s offending, and in this case homicide offending, is tied up with men,” said report co-author Samantha Jeffries from the Griffith Criminology Institute in Australia.

Mixed in with this was poverty, an inability to access justice and a judicial system tainted by corruption, she said.

The women interviewed were serving sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment, yet few were deemed “primary offenders” in the violent crimes for which they were convicted.

While some had contracted a killer, many said they were jailed because of their association with a male partner or relative, with half claiming they were not directly involved or even present during the crime.

The vast majority reported being “intimidated, threatened or assaulted during police questioning”, and some were physically forced to endorse police statements.

“Over half said they had fingerprinted/signed these documents without knowledge of the content. These statements would later be used against them in court,” the report read.

One woman said she was handcuffed at the ankle to a table for two nights and kept in the dark. She was questioned by a drunk policeman who was dressed in only a towel and who touched her shoulders and moved uncomfortably close to her face.

National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith denied those reports as “unfair” to his officers. “The report is very imaginative in its accusations. Bring the complaint to me, I will punish those police,” he said, adding he had not received a single report of women being coerced into signing confessions.

He said police did not have a specific mechanism for dealing with women suspects but were required to abide by a code of ethics. Last year 220 officers were punished or fired for behaviour such as drinking, he added.

Thida Khus, from women’s rights group Silaka, said in a message that despite funds being allocated to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to secure public defenders for women, it is a significant “challenge to get legal aid for women”, one that is “compounded by the non functioning court system”.

Just two of the women in the study were involved in homicides as a direct result of domestic violence, although others had also experienced violence, including under the Khmer Rouge. Three were triggered to kill by anger over being abandoned by their husbands.

“For many women, their family is their entire universe . . . That’s all they have. And when that falls apart, they lose it,” Jeffries said, adding Cambodia’s stringent gender roles – where women bear children and men financially support them – exacerbated the problem.

A compelling story in the cluster is that of “feminine familial sacrifice”, where one woman, named Sophorn, describes having a charmed life before taking the fall in a brutal murder allegedly committed by a male relative. She is now serving a life sentence for his crime.

“I was trying to protect him, I love him and my family, he is younger than me, my parents have no idea that I am covering for him,” Sophorn told researchers, adding it was the first time she had told her story.

“The public is always hysterical about violent offenders – they’re ‘evil personified’ and ‘should rot in jail forever’,” Jeffries said. “I think if people understood, listened to the stories of people in our prisons, their view would change very rapidly, because it literally could be any one of us.”

Additional reporting by Kong Meta

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