A letter addressed to National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Tuesday from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) highlights grave concerns with Cambodia’s draft Prison Law, which is due to be debated at the National Assembly next Thursday.
The letter follows up on a report carried out by OHCHR in Cambodia between July 2010 and June 2011, in which support for prison reform by the government was of particular focus.
The UN report said the government’s draft prison law “appeared to have taken into consideration some of the comments previously provided by the OHCHR,” but “other draft provisions still fell short of international human rights standards.”
It also notes that at the end of 2007, 26 percent of the country’s entire prison population were people in detention awaiting trial, but by the end of May 2011 that figure had risen to a whopping 38 percent of all prison inmates being held in pretrial detention.
Overcrowding was also cited as a continuing concern, with “15,200 prisoners as of May 2011, against an estimated prison capacity of around 8,500.”
In Tuesday’s letter, the deputy representative of OHCHR in Cambodia, James Heenan, praises certain elements of the current draft law, particularly the “strong emphasis on rehabilitation” and “the requirement for separation of the different categories of prisoners, including the juveniles from the adults.”
But other elements, Mr Heenan wrote, “could still be improved from an international human rights perspective,” including access to fresh air for prisoners, clarity concerning the use of force and disciplinary procedures by prison guards.
A 1998 prakas from the Ministry of Interior, which is currently in force, “gives the right to all prisoners to be in the open air for at least an hour each day…. Unfortunately, Article 30 of the draft law no longer contains any reference to a specific minimum amount of time outdoors,” Mr Heenan wrote.
Mr Heenan also wrote that article 49 of the draft law “does not refer to any of the four basic international principles governing the use of force” which require that force is never used as a punitive measure, should only be used as a last resort and that the force used should be proportionate to the situation.
The letter also expresses concern over the “unduly long” minimum detention period of 14 days to be imposed for solitary confinement or separate detention. The UN Special Rapporteur on torture concluded in a recent report that “15 days is the limit between solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement because at that point…some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible.”
A report released by local rights group Licadho last week highlighted their concerns relating to a provision in the draft law for “the authorization of prison labor for private firms,” but Kuy Bunsorn, director general of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, denied on Friday that this contravened any national or international law, as it will not involve forced labor.
“Prisoners will be selected on a voluntary basis, they have full rights to say no if they do not want to do it” the work, Mr Bunsorn said.
“This law is not established for labor exploitation, we will provide an adequate income for them based on performance,” he said, adding that all products would be for local supply and not for export.
An additional provision in the draft law states that children under the age of three will be allowed to remain with their mother in prison. Upon nearing their third birthday, however, they will be removed from the prison and sent either to stay with relatives or remain in the care of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Mr Bunsorn said this addition was in the best interest of the children, and said that allowing children to stay for more than three years in prison would encourage mothers to bring children to prison with them.
“Prisons are not designed to detain children who are like white paper that is easily spoiled. They deserve not to grow up in cells. The Social Affairs Ministry has the responsibility of this burden,” Mr Bunsorn said.
Representatives of the Ministry of Social Affairs were unavailable for comment yesterday.