A hilltribe minority man, jailed for almost a year without trial for allegedly destroying property on a Mondolkiri province land concession, died Monday of hunger-related complications, hospital and rights workers said.
A human rights worker in the province said Tuesday the death was the result of neglect at Mondolkiri Provincial Prison. A high-ranking prison official said he would investigate the matter.
Nhoeth Thy, 47, a member of the Phnong ethnic minority from Pou Trou village in O’Reang district’s Sen Monorom commune, died at 10 am, according to Nou Somethea, a doctor at Sen Monorom Referral Hospital.
Nhoeth Thy was pale and suffering from a severe protein deficiency when he arrived at the hospital at 9:30 am, Nou Somethea said.
The prisoner convulsed and died 30 minutes after arriving at the hospital, the doctor said, adding that hospital staff were unable to revive the man.
Nou Somethea said he suspected the detainee had also contracted malaria, which may have brought on a blood disorder called hemolysis, in which red blood cells degenerate rapidly.
“There was no torture involved in the death,” he added.
Em Veasna, an investigator for the human rights NGO Vigilance, who visited the prisoner in hospital, said Nhoeth Thy had been left to die by prison authorities.
“This is absolutely the mistake of prison guards who neglected to provide medical treatment and supply enough food for prisoners,” he said. “Prison guards failed to send the victim to hospital, which aggravated the victim’s sickness, and he could not survive.”
Mondolkiri Provincial Prison Director Ang Kimleng could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Prison guard Prum Vanna, who accompanied Nhoeth Thy to hospital, said Tuesday that hunger was a problem at his prison but said the detainee had only begun to have stomach problems Sunday evening.
Two other prisoners are also being treated at the hospital for other hunger-related sicknesses, Prum Vanna said, adding that Nhoeth Thy may have been underfed but had not starved to death.
“That prisoner never had any sickness in prison before because he could work, walk and exercise well,” he said.
Nhoeth Thy was arrested early last year and held without trial after being accused of burning grasslands which resulted in the destruction of trees on the Wuzhishan pine tree plantation, according to Em Veasna.
Nhoeth Thy had also protested against the plantation, according to Sam Sarin, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc.
“Only one villager was arrested last year over the allegation of destroying the company’s pine trees,” he said.
Heng Hak, the newly appointed director-general of the Prison Secretariat, which was created earlier this month, said Tuesday that he had not yet been informed of the death but that he would investigate.
“I haven’t received information about this case yet, but I realize that there is some problem with the food supply because the prisoners in each prison used to get only [$0.25] per day [in food],” Heng Hak said.
“Recently the government increased the food per diem to [$0.38] so we can help them a little right now with the food supply,” he said.
“I will investigate this case to verify whether he died because our food supply was not enough to feed him,” he said.
Cambodia’s notorious prisons have consistently been criticized over poor conditions and the mistreatment of inmates.
Video footage obtained in August appeared to show police special forces gunning down unarmed prisoners, at least eight of whom were killed, in the June 18 siege at Battambang Provincial Prison. Prison officials claimed at the time that the inmates had committed suicide with a grenade.
Violent suppression of a March 2005 siege at Kompong Cham province’s CC3 prison left 17 inmates dead. Prison officials later denied that unarmed inmates had been gunned down despite published newspaper photographs, which appeared to show handcuffed bodies in the prison.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Tuesday that his ministry was making sustained efforts to improve conditions for inmates, such as allowing exercise, vocational training and agriculture programs.
Food for prison inmates, however, had to compete with other needs, such as the low salaries of Interior Ministry officials, some of whom make as little as $20 a month.
“I think that [between whether] to increase the amount of money for the prisoners [or] to increase the salary of government officials, the government must be top priority,” he said.
“If we take the blanket to cover our feet, our heads will be cold. If we cover our heads, our feet will be cold. That is the situation today.”
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison.)