Former prisoners and a human rights group have accused Ratanakkiri provincial prison of forcing inmates over several years to work at a sawmill operating behind the prison’s cellblock.
A senior provincial official, however, said the prison sawmill has been in operation for less than a year, and serves as a vocational training facility for inmates.
Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar said he has interviewed several former prisoners over the past several years who said they had no choice when it came to working in the mill, and that his organization has collected evidence proving the sawmill had processed luxury wood, which is illegal to log, for the production of window frames and furniture.
Adhoc is conducting more interviews and will send an official report to the Ministry of Interior, Pen Bonnar said.
“Numerous former prisoners we spoke with, all of them claimed that they were always forced to work without pay,” he said by telephone Tuesday.
Hong Saream, 33, an inmate at the prison from January 2007 to March 2008, said by telephone that he was assigned to guard other prisoners and would bring four or five to the sawmill, located about 10 meters from detention cells, every day, where they worked from 7 am to 5 pm with an hourlong lunch break.
The inmates, Hong Saream alleged, had to change out of their prison uniforms to work at the mill. Prisoners jointly shared about 20 percent of revenues from the sawmill, which they received on the day of their release.
“I heard from other prisoners that it has been operating for many years,” Hong Saream said. “I’ve seen luxury timber very often transported in the prison’s trucks to the sawmill for the production of window frames and furniture,” he added.
Another former prisoner, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said detainees who had worked at the mill complained they were never paid. “They just use the words ‘vocational training,’” said the woman.
“Prisoners dared not report to visiting officials or human rights workers when they are still in the prison,” she said, adding that inmates feared retaliation.
Ratanakkiri Prison Director Ngin Nhel said he was too busy to speak with a reporter Tuesday morning, and could not be contacted for comment later in the day.
Acting Ratanakkiri Provincial Governor Chey Sayoeun, however, said the prison’s sawmill and furniture business was above board.
The prison’s director asked for permission to open the sawmill in late 2007, and received it earlier this year, he said, adding that the sawmill is frequently monitored to ensure it is not processing wood that is the result of illegal logging. The profits from the business belong to the prison, he said.
“I also sent letters to provincial forestry administration officials to frequently monitor the wood production at the sawmill to ensure there exists no illegal logging [timber],” Chey Sayoeun added.
Provincial Forestry Administration Chief You Kanvimean declined to comment on the prison sawmill when contacted Tuesday.
Heng Hak, director-general of the Ministry of Interior’s general department of prisons, said all prisons are encouraged to create vocational training programs to help prisoners reintegrate into society after their release, but that such programs are entirely voluntary.
“But I am not clearly aware whether the prisoners in [Ratanakkiri] are forced to do so or have not received money,” he said, adding that he would investigate Adhoc’s allegations of forced labor.