Rights Workers Say Police Torture Widespread

As the UN marks its Inter­national Day in Support of Victims of Torture today, human rights officials and legal watchdogs in Cambodia are trying to refute the government’s claims that the torture of suspects in police or judicial custody is not as widespread as some have claimed.

“The practice of torture seems to be tolerated at all levels,” said Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, in a statement. “Police officers that commit torture do so with impunity, usually to extract confessions, and the courts support it by permitting forced confessions to be used as evidence against suspects,” she continued.

Also due for release today was Licadho’s “Briefing Report on Torture in Police Custody in Cam­bodia.” That report, based on interviews with 4,767 prison inmates in 20 provinces, says that 8 percent of inmates claim they were mistreated while in police custody and that the percentage likely is higher than that.

Licadho’s research shows that of those who report mistreatment, 81 percent said they had been “beaten or kicked.” Forty-nine percent said they had been “beaten with some kind of object.” The great majority said they were tortured during the detention period after they were arrested.

Inmates in Phnom Penh and in Svay Rieng and Takeo provinces reported the highest incidence of mistreatment.

Om Yentieng, head of the government’s Human Rights Com­mittee, disputed the report’s findings.

“We have received some complaints from NGOs that said police have tortured some suspects or prisoners, but we had found there to be very few cases,” he said, citing “the government’s strict policy against the torture of suspects.” Om Yentieng said human rights and court officials have constant access to Cambodian prisons proving that the prisons have nothing to hide from them.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh this week urged the government to answer questions posed earlier this year by the UN Committee Against Torture.

The committee last month issued a provisional report in Geneva in which it admonished Cambodia, citing “numerous, ongoing and consistent allegations of acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment committed by law-enforcement personnel in police stations and prisons.”

The UN’s Convention Against Torture states, among other things, that “the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession….”

The convention was adopted in 1997. Cambodia ratified it in 1992.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he feels that while physical abuse may be less prevalent than in the past, other forms of mistreatment are still common.

“[Torture] is less than before, but less does not mean none,” he said. “There has been improvement, but [that means] there is less physical torture, but more psychological torture, because it is very difficult to find evidence of that.”

Sok Sam Oeun feels that the bulk of the torture occurs when police are trying to elicit a confession or some sort of written statement.

“The police say, ‘if you confess, you will have less punishment.’ Or, ‘if you do not confess I will beat you or kill you.’ The people do not think this is torture,” Sok Sam Oeun said.

Police commonly keep prisoners in dirty rooms, keep them shackled or handcuffed or keep them in otherwise unsanitary conditions. This also constitutes torture, Sok Sam Oeun said.

Licadho reported that 90 percent of prisoners say they confessed during their pre-trial detention period.

“Cambodia has no evidence code, no code of what is acceptable in a court. They think that good evidence is physical evidence,” Sok Sam Oeun said. There are virtually no autopsies in Cambodia, ballistic experts have never testified in Cambodian courts and judges are unwilling to make witness testimonies admissible as evidence, he said.

“We need to educate and train the police, tell them that they can convict people without a confession or without any word from the suspect,” Sok Sam Oeun said.

Thun Saray, director of the human rights group Adhoc, also thinks physical abuse is less prevalent, but said it is “still going on and not punished by the law.” He cited a “culture of impunity.”

Further, Thun Saray said, torture is more common in the countryside. “Perhaps the people in the countryside have more torture because the knowledge of the police is low compared to the city. Maybe the people in the countryside are scared to complain. They are scared of reprisals,” he said.

Heidi Lichteveld, legal adviser to Legal Aid of Cambodia, said she agrees that poorer people are more susceptible to police mistreatment, saying they are generally less aware of their rights.

An informal LAC survey indicates that 30 percent of the people the group represents have reported incidents of mistreatment.

Ministry of Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith also downplayed the accusations of widespread torture, saying the incidences of physical abuse is markedly down. He cites better education for police officers and a response to public outcry about torture.

“All the human rights groups campaign to educate the police on the rights of the prisoner,” Khieu Kanharith said. “The international organizations spend a lot of money to educate the police and the army about the rights, they are doing that work. If they say there is more torture, that means they have failed.”

(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)

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