Cambodian prisoners will soon be guarded by civil servants—not police officers—thanks to a royal decree creating a separate force to guard the country’s prisons.
The decree, signed late last month, transfers control of Cambodia’s prisons from police to civilians, You Hockry, co-Minister of Interior, said Thursday.
“We want to separate the process of arrest and detention within the prison system. We don’t want police in the same role as the one to arrest and also to detain [in prison],” said You Hockry.
Although authority over the prison department was transferred from the National Police chief to the Interior Ministry’s administration department in 1993, the power has remained effectively with the police chiefs since police still ran the prisons.
While local human rights workers welcomed the new plan to transfer control from police to civilians, they also warn that other areas of prison life need urgent improvement.
The new system will not take effect immediately.
Sreng Sreang, director of the prisons department, said Thursday the decree has begun the process of separation but sub-decrees dealing with such matters as uniforms and rank must be passed before the changeover can begin.
And some police may elect to stay within the prison system.
Prach Chan, director general of the Interior Ministry’s administration department, which oversees prisons, said police officers who now work in the prisons can choose to become guards—but must leave the police force.
Kuy Bunsron, director of the Prey Sa prison in Phnom Penh, said Thursday that so far, all of the police guards at Prey Sa prison say they will sign up to become civilian guards.
Prach Chan said that creating a separate statute for prison guards brought Cambodia more in line with international prison-management standards.
“We do not want the police, who are an institution to implement the law, to also control prisoners. The police can arrest offenders but they must be transferred to the control of civil servants,” said Prach Chan.
Human rights groups have long criticized the Cambodian penal system over allegations that prison guards regularly torture inmates.
Om Yentieng, adviser to the Prime Minister Hun Sen and chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, is heading an investigation into the case of Chuon Than, 40, who died April 20 from a broken neck sustained in Takeo prison.
Prison guards initially reported Chuon Than died of typhoid.
Local human rights groups Adhoc and Licadho said Thursday that transferring police officers from prison guard positions is a positive step toward greater accountability in the prison system.
Adhoc Director Thun Saray said that police officers cannot be impartial in their dealing with prisoners who have been arrested by fellow police officers.
“I think that it is good they separate the responsibility for prisons from police officers,” said Thun Saray, adding that moving the prison department completely from the Interior Ministry is also another option to ensure independence. “[Prison departments] are under the Justice Ministry in other countries,” noted Thun Saray.
Kek Galabru, Licadho president, also welcomed the separation of power but added that the new civilian prison officers will need special training to complete the transition.
But other issues need to be addressed, she said, noting that prison food, medical care and living conditions must be improved.
A survey conducted by the Cambodia Criminal Justice Assistance Project undertaken to design a national prison health system found that neither the Ministry of Interior nor Ministry of Health made provision for supplying medicine to prisoners.
“We give medical assistance to some prisons but we cannot go to all the prisons in the country,” Kek Galabru said.