Cambodian prisoners are trying to avoid being taken to Phnom Penh for their appeal court hearings because the General Department of Prisons is failing to ensure they are returned to their provincial prisons, causing inmates to remain incarcerated far from their families.
The problem is outlined in a new report released today by local rights group Licadho, which found that while there have been improvements in the number of prisoners being taken to Phnom Penh for their appeal hearings, it has become a one-way ticket as very few are ever taken back to the provinces.
“In its recently released 2012 annual activity report the [General Department of Prisons] reported that it had provided transport for 619 inmates to attend their appeal hearings in Phnom Penh; 475 of these inmates were from the provinces,” the report says.
“What the report does not state is how many of these prisoners were transferred back to their home prisons in the provinces after their appeals. The reality, it seems, is that very few have been [returned]—at least not without paying.”
The report, titled In Absentia: An Update on Cambodia’s Inmate Transportation Crisis and the Right to Appeal, also found that Phnom Penh municipality’s already overstretched prison system is having to accommodate these extra inmates from the provinces.
“Licadho research has found that many prisoners are now actively trying to avoid being transported to Phnom Penh for their appeals, so that they may remain closer to their families in the provinces,” the report says. “This is a disturbing development.”
Licadho also found that some inmates who have attended their appeal hearings were then transported out of Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham province’s CC3 prison, “reputed to be one of the Cambodian penal system’s harshest facilities.”
That prison is operating at 191 percent capacity, Licadho said.
In 2011, more than 90 percent of inmates in 22 of the country’s 26 prisons were being denied transport to the appeal court in Phnom Penh because, officials said, the government did not have funds to pay for the petrol that their transport to court would require.
In some instances, the appeal and supreme court letters summonsing inmates to their hearings arrived long after the scheduled hearing dates had passed. Licadho, however, acknowledged that there have been improvements in the system since then.
“At first glance, prison authorities’ recent efforts to enable more prisoners to attend their appeals are commendable,” the report says. “However, the provision of appeal transportation can only work if inmates are also able to return to their provincial prisons.”
One solution would be to establish a dedicated regional appeals system to avoid having to send all appeal inmates to Phnom Penh, Licadho said.
The report also says there are no precise figures that denote how many inmates have not been sent back to provincial prisons, though it did cite a prison guard in Prey Sar prison’s CC1 section as having said in March that at least 100 of the prisoners there had come from provincial prisons, and had not been taken back.
“This fundamental flaw in the appeals transport system casts a long shadow on the progress made to date on this issue,” Licadho said. “Most importantly, if this problem is not addressed soon, it means the system of appeal transportation could ultimately fail.”
Prisons department director-general Kuy Bunsorn declined to comment.
CC1 prison director Srun Leang said overcrowding because of the growing population of appeal hearing prisoners is not a problem because a new prison block is now able to accommodate them. “It consists of three big rooms—D1, D2 and D3, which can each contain about 150 prisoners,” he said. “We just opened the D block after December, so it is not a problem anymore.”
Still, he admitted that taking prisoners back to their provincial jails was a problem “because we don’t have the money to pay for petrol.”