Human rights officials on Sunday denounced a Kompong Cham provincial court decision that led to the dismissal of charges last week against five prison guards accused of torturing a group of prisoners who were caught trying to escape.
The judge ruled that the guards were not guilty but that they should face “administrative action” for the incident, a ruling that seemed to imply the guards were liable for the injuries that prisoners reported after the Dec 13, 1999, confrontation.
“Basically, the verdict seems to be ‘guilty but not guilty,’” said Jason Barber, a consultant with Licadho’s Project Against Torture who observed the trial.
He said he now fears for the prisoners’ safety as they return to the care of the guards they testified against. Four of the alleged beating victims are now at Trapaeng Plong prison in Kompong Cham and a fifth is at Prey Sar prison near Phnom Penh.
“The victims and witnesses, who remain behind bars, courageously testified in court and must be protected from retribution for having done so,” Barber said. “We urge the Ministry of Interior to take measures to ensure their safety, including allowing unhindered access to them by their lawyers and human rights workers.”
A prison escape gone awry led to the alleged beatings at Kompong Cham provincial prison.
Three guards told the Kompong Cham court last week that the prisoners were cornered during their escape attempt. Two prison guards who were also present at the time of the attempted escape did not appear in court.
“I never hit them,” prison guard Hak Yi told the provincial court.
Four of five beating victims testified that they were serving long prison sentences for murder, robbery and other violent crimes. They acknowledged trying to escape from prison and said they were serving prison terms of up to 21 years.
The New York-based human rights group Human Rights Watch has characterized the trial as precedent-setting because it was the first time that prison guard had been held accountable for beatings in Cambodia.
“We are very disappointed with the outcome of the trial, which sets a negative precedent for any decisive legal action against officials who apply torture in custody,” a representative of Human Rights Watch who attended the trial said. “We are now extremely concerned about possible reprisals against the victims and witnesses who remain in custody.
“Eyewitnesses, including one prison guard, testified that the prisoners were beaten. There were medical records clearly describing the prisoners’ injuries,” the representative said.