Prisons say they have no gasoline to transport inmates to court
More than 90 percent of inmates serving jail sentences at 22 of Cambodia’s 26 prisons are being prevented from attending their Appeal Court hearings because of a lack of funds for transport as well as administrative lapses, human rights groups said yesterday.
The situation is not much better at the other four prisons in the vicinity of Phnom Penh, where a higher number of appealing inmates are brought to court, but only if they pay for their own transportation costs.
“The absence of those prisoners not attending appeal hearings is a critical human rights abuse,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho. The further away from Phnom Penh you are jailed, the less chance you have of attending your appeal hearing in the capital.
“Most of the prisons in Cambodia don’t have a van to transport detainees to their hearing at the Appeal Court or the Supreme Court,” Mr. Sam Ath said.
Chan Soveth, deputy head monitor for human rights group Adhoc, said his organization has found that only 5 or 6 percent of all appellants ever attend their appeal hearing.
“The rights of detainees awaiting their appeal hearing have been ignored,” Mr. Soveth said.
In 2010, Licadho found that 540 appellants detained in seven prisons—Kompong Cham province’s Correctional Center III, Kompong Cham Provincial Prison, Siem Reap Provincial Prison, Pursat Provincial Prison, Koh Kong Provincial Prison and Preah Sihanouk Provincial Prison—were not brought to court.
Court and prison officials admitted yesterday that it was difficult if not impossible to transport inmates to their hearings, but insisted that prisoners’ rights were not being breached.
Supreme Court clerk Chheang Vantha blamed the situation on a lack of gasoline.
“Most of the detainees from the provinces have never been transported to attend the [appeal] hearing because [the prison] doesn’t have money to pay for gasoline,” Mr. Vantha said.
“Although most appeals are heard in absentia, they still have their lawyers to defend and represent them,” he said.
Limited supplies of gasoline are not the only problem preventing prisoners from having their day in court.
Nguon Lay, director of Pursat Provincial Prison, said poor administration at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court also contributed to his prison’s inability to bring prisoners to their hearings.
“The letters ordering a prisoner’s release…to bring detainees to attend appeal hearings sometimes arrive to the prison after the hearing date,” Mr. Lay said, adding that even transporting prisoners to the provincial court was difficult at times.
“Sometimes, our prison guards walk the detainees to the provincial court when we need to send three or four detainees [together],” he said.
“When we need to send only one or two detainees to court, those detainees will be taken on individual police motorbikes, accompanied by prison guards.”
Fortunately for prisoners, the court will not hear an appeal without the presence of the appellant’s lawyer, which ensures that the system is still just, Mr. Lay said.
Kompong Chhnang Provincial Prison director Pauv Vuthy said the situation is the same at his jail, which only has an aged van that rarely has any gasoline in its tank.
“Sometimes, the family of the appellants pay for the gasoline to transport the detainees to attend the hearing,” he said.
Journalist Ros Sokhet, who was released from Prey Sar Correctional Center I in October 2010 after serving more than a year there on a disinformation charge, said yesterday that he always had to pay for the gasoline that was used by the prison in order to transport him to his appeal hearings.
“First, we had to wait a long time to get an appeal hearing. And, ridiculously, we had to pay for the gasoline and food for prison officials to take us there,” he said, adding that each prisoner paid between $2.50 to $5, or about 10,000 to 20,000 riel, per court trip. “It is an injustice.”
Many countries apply the principle of habeas corpus, a process whereby prisoners can be released from detention to attend court proceedings.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of free legal aid organization the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Cambodia should be doing the same.
“The accused has rights, as stated in the rule of law. They have the legal right to attend the hearing,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good the lawyers are, the accused needs to participate.”