Human rights officials are investigating the death of a Takeo man who died at the provincial prison April 20, prompting accusations by his family that he had been tortured to death.
But others insist that Chuon Than, 40, had typhoid fever and died before he could be transferred to a hospital.
Police and court officials say they don’t know which story is true, and they won’t know until they see the results of an autopsy that was performed Monday by a court doctor.
The results are not expected for several months.
Kek Galabru, founder of the human rights organization Licadho, said Licadho sent both a doctor and an investigator to Takeo to look into the case, but that she is also awaiting the autopsy results.
“It is hard to say [at this point] what happened to him,’’ she said Thursday. She explained that Licadho’s doctor, who is not a pathologist, was not able to examine the man’s body until 18 hours after his death.
By that time, decomposition made it difficult to determine the cause of death, she said.
Court officials said Chuon Than was serving a six-month term for an assault in connection with a land dispute with his neighbor, Pen Det, in the village of Trapeang Khnol in Tram Kak district. Chuon Than was accused of beating Pen Det’s son in December of 1995.
Police tried to negotiate a settlement a number of times, a rights worker said. Although Chuon Than eventually agreed to pay 900,000 riel ($237), he never did, and finally on March 22 of this year, he was jailed.
Chan Soveth of the human rights group Adhoc said that when Chuon Than was arrested by military police, they were accompanied by a soldier who was Pen Det’s younger brother. It is possible Chuon Than was injured at that time, said Chan Soveth.
But Licadho employees who regularly visit the prison said that when they saw him two days before he died, he was very ill, Kek Galabru, said.
“The Licadho staff asked the prison director to send him to the hospital, but there are many procedures [to follow] and it takes some time,’’ she said.
“It is very important to know if he was tortured or not,’’ she said. But at this point, “we cannot say.’’
Chan Soveth said regardless of how the prisoner died, the role of prosecutors in the case must be questioned.
A human rights worker agreed, saying that when prison director Nol Nem learned the prisoner was sick on April 19, he asked prosecutors to allow Chuon Than to go to the hospital. On the 20th, the worker said, he asked again.
By the time permission was granted, the prisoner had died.
Cambodian prisons were harshly criticized in a 1998 UN report compiled by Thomas Hammarberg, who was the UN’s special representative on human rights to Cambodia at the time.
The 24-page report said as many as one in five Cambodian prisoners was tortured by police and prison officials, a claim law enforcement personnel vigorously denied.