Takeo Prison Death, Government Action Sparks Questions

The death of a Takeo prisoner has stirred an unusual amount of interest in government circles, with a top human rights official making a personal trip to Takeo to speak with the prosecutor.

Om Yentieng, adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, said Tuesday he was just doing his job.

He said he told Takeo prosecutor Mey Sokhon that, after reviewing autopsy results, his committee concluded that Chuon Than, 40, was beaten April 20 and died of a broken neck.

“We pointed out the persons who are responsible for this kill­ing, but this is the affair of the court,’’ Om Yentieng said. “We don’t tell them what they have to do.’’

Prison officials have said Chuon Than fell ill with typhoid and died because of delays in getting court permission to have him taken to a hospital.

Human rights workers said they can’t recall Om Yentieng making such an effort in any other case. The government Human Rights Committee has long been criticized for being inactive.

“There are a lot of cases where he did not do anything—like the grenade attack’’ of 1997, which killed at least 16, said one rights worker. “Why only this case? Why not other cases? It’s not normal at all.’’

Said another rights worker, “There are quite a number of allegations of torture in prisons that are never followed up. Why this one?’’

Ministry of Justice officials said last week that Prime Minister Hun Sen has indicated he wants this case solved, and quickly. The human rights workers said there is speculation that the dead man was related to someone in a high government position.

The case of the dead prisoner in Takeo surfaced at an awkward time for the government: just a few weeks before last week’s annual donor’s meeting in France. In 1998, a scathing UN report found as many as one in five of the country’s prisoners were tortured by police and prison officials.

Human rights organizations and donors have demanded reforms in the country’s law enforcement and penal systems.

Takeo Governor Kep Chuk­tema said Tuesday he is prepared to suspend three top officials at the prison—as well as a prison guard—pending the outcome of the investigation.

But he can’t do it, he said, until he finds someone to run the prison during their absence. “We are still looking for replacements,’’ he said. “We will do it in no more than two weeks.’’

No theory has surfaced as to why anyone at the prison would want to attack Chuon Than, who was serving a six-month term for assault in a neighborhood land dispute. A third human rights worker close to the case said that in the end, it may not matter all that much whether Chuon Than was beaten to death or died of typhoid.

“Either way, the government is responsible. Whether they beat him to death or denied him medical treatment, the government is ultimately responsible,’’ the rights worker said.


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