The UN Committee Against Torture urged Cambodia to define precisely what torture means in its domestic laws and set up an independent body to investigate alleged cases in a list of recommendations released yesterday.
It also asked the government to explain the deaths of three Cambodians in police custody over the past two years and follow up on the fate of 20 Uighur asylum seekers the government sent back to China last year, drawing international condemnation.
The recommendations and requests come from a new report on Cambodia’s appearance before the committee two weeks ago in Geneva, only its second since acceding to the UN Convention Against Torture in 1992. The hearing was a chance to gauge Cambodia’s progress in meeting its obligations.
After Cambodia’s first showing in 2003, the committee, a panel of 10 independent experts, pressed the government to step up its efforts to stop the use of confessions gained by torture in court.
However, human rights groups say the use of forced confessions remains common practice. Licadho claims at least 118 Cambodians were tortured by authorities in 2009, most of them while in police custody. Despite some welcome gains, including the approval of several new treaties and laws, the 15-page report often agreed with such assessments.
Seven years after making the same complaint, the committee “expressed its concern at reports that the use of forced confessions as evidence in courts is widespread,” and urged the government to make those confessions inadmissible.
“The committee is also concerned that such allegations are seldom investigated and prosecuted and that there would appear to be a climate of impunity resulting in the lack of meaningful disciplinary action or criminal prosecution against persons of authority,” he added.
Also as before, it urged the government to add the convention’s definition of torture to its own laws.
“Such action would show a real and important recognition of torture as a serious crime and human rights abuse and fight impunity…alerting everyone, including perpetrators, victims and the public, to the special gravity of the crime,” the Committee said.
At its hearing, Cambodia repeated its old stance that the Constitution’s commitment to upholding its international treaty obligations, including the Torture Convention, was enough.
But like the committee, local rights groups disagree. Without a definition in domestic law, they say, judges can too easily impose a permissive interpretation of torture.
“If the definition is not clear, it is easy for the perpetrator to escape from responsibility,” said Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO.
Among several other recommendations, the committee also urged Cambodia to set a sentencing scheme for government officials convicted of torture and create an independent body to investigate claims.
It also urged the government to guarantee detainees access to a lawyer within the first 24 hours.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Cambodian law already does.
“Suspects are allowed by law to have lawyers from the first second of arrest,” he said.
But to the dismay of human rights groups, the criminal procedure code in fact allows for a lawyer only after the first 24 hours, the period when most forced confessions allegedly occur. They say reports of rewards for confessions only make the matter worse.
Police may be rewarded for “good work,” Mr Sopheak said, “but these awards do not encourage police to torture people for confessions and convictions. There are no cases of forced confessions from torture.”
He attributed the deaths of Kong La, Mao Sok and Heng Touch—whom the torture committee inquired after by name—on a combination of liver disease and high blood pressure as determined by thorough post mortem examinations. Human rights groups complain that such investigations remain far from independent.
Echoing a common refrain from Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top officials, he dismissed the NGOs’ claims as a mere ploy for funding.
“In short, no torture exists here,” he said. “I pity the people in Geneva who have been cheated by NGOs in Phnom Penh.”
Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek meanwhile welcomed the report’s focus on the need for independent investigations and on corruption, which the Committee called “one of the most serious impediments” to tackling torture.
But she said it also missed out on calling for the immediate closure of the government’s nonprison detention centers, a common request of rights groups who describe them and the scenes of regular rapes and beatings.
That this year’s report includes more recommendations than 2003’s, she said, “may hint to the fact that the situation has not really improved.”
Cambodia still has a year to submit an official reply to the report.
Mak Sambath, deputy president of the government’s human rights committee, said yesterday he had yet to read the report but said the government would review the recommendations before deciding whether to do so.