By order of Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee has started an investigation gathering statistics from the country’s 25 prisons of how many inmates have been held in pretrial detention beyond the legal time limit, officials said Tuesday.
Inspectors from the government committee will also talk with court officials in order to find out the root causes of why people are held in pretrial detention over the legal limit and the findings of the report will be presented to the prime minister within two months, said Khieu Pao, deputy director-general of the Human Rights Committee.
The inspection, which started on Monday, has so far gathered statistics from prisons in Banteay Meanchey, Battambang, Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces, he added.
“To detain someone over the legal limit is harming the rights of that human being. There are numerous prisoners that have spent time in prison longer than the legal limit,” Mr Pao said.
“It is not the first year we have started to worry on this matter,” he added, but declined to give any figures of previous findings.
According to article 208 in the 2007 criminal procedure code, the court can detain a suspect up to 18 months for a felony and a maximum of six months for a misdemeanor. The law states that provisional detention should be involved if there is a risk of flight, destruction of evidence, witnesses being threatened or to protect the safety of the suspect. A person under 18 cannot be held for more than six months.
Several rights groups have raised concerns over what they consider a large number of people being held over the legal limit, and according to numbers released by the Center for Social Development’s Court Watch Project in May, around 40 percent of all adults and over 60 percent of all juveniles in pretrial detention have been held longer than the legal limit.
Chhiev Huor Lay, prison monitor for local rights group Licadho, said that his organization has only been able to gather pretrial detention numbers from four out of 18 prisons monitored by the group.
“We found 77 people who have been held over the legal limit [but] many prisons they don’t allow us to get statistics on pretrial detention,” he said.
The Human Rights Committee’s investigation runs parallel but separate to another investigation started in June by the Ministry of Justice.
In a letter dated June 8, Minister Ang Vong Vathana ordered every municipal and provincial prosecutor to compile statistics of how many people have been temporarily detained longer than the legal limit. But on July 23 officials reported that less than half of the provincial prosecutors had submitted their findings before the June 30 deadline.
Reached by phone Tuesday, So Chanthy, general inspector of the ministry, said that investigators will visit all 21 courts in the country to gather information about how many people are held in lengthy pretrial detention.
“The importance is to ask the court over the cause of long detention without a hearing. We want to conduct an inspection as soon as possible because it involves violations of human rights,” he said.
Inspectors will first go to the Banteay Meanchey, Kandal and Koh Kong provincial courts, where several examples of lengthy detention has been found, he added.
Court officials interviewed Tuesday said that people being held in pretrial detention for more than 18 months is an exception and not a major issue.
“There are very few cases with small problems,” said Ouk Savouth, prosecutor general of the Appeal Court, adding that recent rights group reports exaggerated the problem.
But Mr Savouth said in some cases suspects are detained over the legal limits because there are not enough lawyers at the provincial level to defend the accused in the courts.
Nuon Vanna, Banteay Meanchey provincial court director, confirmed Tuesday that inspectors from the Cambodian Human Rights Committee had visited the provincial prison on Monday and said that out of the prison’s 601 inmates about 301 are being held in pretrial detention. But Mr Vanna decline to say how many of those in pretrial detention have been held over the legal limit.
“I already reported to the inspection group. But one of the vital key contributions to detention over the legal limit is the lack of lawyers to defend the detainees,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Cajsa Collin)