The Ministry of Interior on Tuesday said the future of the $4 million VIP prison project was awaiting the final decision of Prime Minister Hun Sen as head of government and had not yet been officially cancelled.
A ministry letter signed by spokesman Khieu Sopheak and seen by The Post on Tuesday said the cancelling of the project earlier this month was an internal decision taken by the ministry and needed to be finalised by the government.
“Any decision related to this project must be reviewed by the head of the Cambodian government and await a decision on the sustainability and effectiveness of the project, and the future management of Cambodia’s prisons,” Sopheak said.
Soeung Sen Karuna, the spokesman of rights group Adhoc, welcomed the decision to cancel the VIP prison project and said awaiting final approval from the government was merely a formality.
“VIP prisons should not exist. They take away the idea of prison as a deterrent. Those with money and power would be unafraid of committing crimes as they can afford a prison like a hotel.
“Waiting for the final decision from the government to cancel this project is just a formality,” Sen Karuna said.
On July 11, Sopheak announced that the Ministry of Interior had decided to abandon the VIP prison project after a study found no other countries had “pay-to-stay” prisons for inmates able to afford them.
“We have looked at other countries, and none has built such a prison. So we have decided to abandon the project. No other country has done this, so if we were to, they would use us as an example to follow, and if we were to do it alone, it would be unfeasible,” he said at the time.
First announced in 2016, the facility was billed by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng as a “hotel or detention centre” that would provide better lodgings for inmates who could afford to pay for the upgrade, while at the same time generating revenue for the state.
However, civil society organisations slammed the idea of a two-tier prison system.
The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights had also voiced doubts, while Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report, VOA reported.
“All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the UN treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines,” she said in the report.
But Sopheak denied the project was dropped due to criticism. He said the facility would instead house suspects currently awaiting trial in overcrowded cells.
The $4 million project, a new wing of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison, began in May 2017. It had been led by a private company, Kunn Rekon Holdings, on a 45-year build-operate-transfer agreement that would have seen the government and the firm sharing revenues.
Nuth Savana, the spokesman for the General Department of Prisons, could not be reached by The Post for comment.
In March, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the court process speeded up to avoid prison overcrowding as two-thirds of those in Cambodia’s jails were yet to be sentenced.
Be Tealeng, the deputy director-general of the General Department of Prisons, said in March that the Kingdom’s prisons held 31,400 inmates, of whom 2,440 were female.