Rights group Licadho says it is canceling its annual prison visits on international Human Rights Day, which this year falls on Thursday, for the first time in two decades in protest over what it says are new government restrictions.
In a statement on Sunday, Licadho said the “needless” restrictions by the general department of prisons under the Interior Ministry would have barred it from holding any events at prisons and from handing out food directly to inmates, as it has done in years past.
In protest, the group said it was canceling its Human Rights Day visits to prisons for the first time in 20 years. It said the ban on holding events inside prisons would rob prisoners—who have to cope with major overcrowding—of valuable time outside their cells. And if it can’t put its food packages straight into prisoners’ hands, Licadho added, there was no way to be sure that the packages would make it through the highly corrupt prison system.
“These restrictions typify the sad state of affairs in Cambodia at the moment,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in the statement. “A 20-year tradition of providing an opportunity for prisoners to celebrate [Human Rights Day], many of whom are still awaiting trial, is being blocked, and for what?”
By telephone, Ms. Pilorge said that in the past, the packages included apples, noodles and other food for the roughly 8,000 inmates in the 18 prisons Licadho regularly monitors, along with toys for the children who stay in the prisons with their mothers. But the focus during Human Rights Day activities at the prisons was on the games, shows and speeches—often decided on by the inmates themselves—that got them out of their cramped rooms.
“The focus was on entertainment and for prisoners to get out of their cells and to be part of Human Rights Day,” she said. “The whole idea is just to include the prisoners and inmates in the celebration.”
The cancellation of Thursday’s visits follows a similar decision Licadho made to nix its usual International Women’s Day visits in March because of similar restrictions.
San Keo, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s general prisons department, said the government had not barred Licadho from personally handing out food packages, but had banned entertainment due to security concerns.
“We banned them from holding the art show and concerts,” he said. “When [prisoners] come out all at once it is difficult for us to manage…. If they come out all at once like they want and there is a problem, who is responsible? The authorities will be responsible, not them.”
The government’s prison-visit restrictions follow the Phnom Penh municipal government’s decision last week to turn down a request from several NGOs to mark Human Rights Day with a mass march from Freedom Park to the National Assembly.
Although City Hall said it could not allow the march because of traffic and security concerns, it added that it would consult the Ministry of Interior about a possible compromise.