After the Phnom Penh Municipal Court decided last week to place CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua in prison, she says she was welcomed into the “sisterhood” of Prey Sar’s Correctional Center 2 for women and juveniles.
During the six nights and seven days incarcerated, she got first hand accounts of the extortion that begins with an arrest and does not cease until prisoners—innocent or guilty—are free.
“Every single woman I spoke with spoke about the bribes they have to pay when they are arrested, when they have to get their dossier from court, when they need to see their lawyer…. Some women had been in pretrial detention for eight months, twelve months, two years,” she said, adding that prisoners had to pay to receive visitors, a privilege that is supposed to be free.
“I made a commitment to some of them. What I’d like to do as a parliamentarian—we [the CNRP] have the commission on human rights—is be more committed, more accountable to the people who have been cheated by this rotten justice system.”
Contacted Friday, Teng Bunthy, deputy director of Prey Sar’s Correctional Center 2, denied outright that bribes were being paid to officials at the prison
He also said that it was not his call to keep prisoners in pretrial detention beyond the statutory six months.
“It is the court order, not the prison’s. Prison is just a warehouse where we store the goods,” Mr. Bunthy said of prisoners held longer than legally permitted.
After being arrested at Freedom Park on July 15, Ms. Sochua was held overnight at the Municipal Police headquarters in Tuol Kok district. Here, she said, began the problems that will form the basis of a report she plans to make to the U.S. State Department about the conditions she and many others face while in police custody.
At the police station, Ms. Sochua, a dual U.S. and Cambodian citizen, said she was refused a lawyer and forced to spend a night handcuffed in a cell with three male guards.
“This is where the injustice begins—at the police station. Speaking as a woman, I asked for female police guards but they said they did not have,” she said.
At police headquarters, Ms. Sochua—along with fellow elected lawmakers Ho Vann, Men Sothavrin and Keo Phirum—was photographed in handcuffs by police. The images went viral and became a symbol of protest against their arrests.
“This is another one of their mistakes. Every single action against us was a mistake,” she said. “Right away, when our car was surrounded by police at Freedom Park, I knew that this was a mistake by the CPP and I said to my colleagues: ‘lets play it all the way. Lets get to Prey Sar.’”
Upon arriving at the notoriously overcrowded prison, the former women’s affairs minister was made welcome, she said. The prisoners, who have access to radios and listen to independent stations, were waiting for her.
“The women took care of me. They fanned me and gave me a foot massage while we listened to Radio Free Asia,” she said.
Police, too, were sympathetic.
“They were really trying to look after me, genuinely. I think they felt I should not be there. It hurt them.”
The jailed lawmaker-elect had access to what those in the prison call “Lucky Market”—a shop controlled by guards inside the prison where one can “buy everything” for about 10 percent above retail price.
Near the end of her stay, she was visited by CNRP chief whip Son Chhay. But she received no such visit from officials at the U.S. Embassy, which said it made repeated attempts to get access to Ms. Sochua.
The fact that the embassy could not broker a meeting with its incarcerated citizen, she said, was particularly alarming, given the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. has poured into Cambodia over the past 20 years.
“Donors have a moral obligation. That moral obligation means more than putting out statements or behind the scenes diplomacy,” she said.
“For 20 years, this backdoor diplomacy has made so little progress in terms of commitment and accountability to the protection of human rights and democracy in a country you are supposed to be a partner with.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)