UN Torture Committee Questions Cambodia on Alleged Abuses

An expert UN panel on torture grilled Cambodia on Tuesday about everything from allegations of corruption at the Khmer Rouge tribunal to the caloric intake of its prisoners.

The hearing in Geneva was a review of Cambodia’s adherence to the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, only the second since the country became party the convention in 1992.

The government was scheduled to deliver its reply to the panel yesterday afternoon.

Local NGOs have long accused the security forces of torturing prisoners, of using torture to gain confessions, and of refusing to investigate claims of either. Before this week’s hearing, they also claimed that at least 118 Cambodians were tortured in prison or police custody in 2009. The human rights organization Licadho suspected that nine people had died as a result of torture.

Official records of the meeting were not available yesterday. But according to the Hawaii Center for Human Rights, the ten-member expert panel chaired by Claudio Grossman, a human rights lawyer from Chile, took up several of the NGOs’ claims during a wide-ranging session that took on broad themes and particular cases alike.

Felice Gaer, the committee’s vice-chair, reportedly asked Cambodia about its heavy–sometimes exclusive–reliance on confessions to make convictions, whether police were rewarded for the number of cases they solved, and what abuses that might encourage.

Under current law, confessions must be corroborated with additional evidence to be held against a suspect.

Ms Gaer also asked after three men who died in police custody in recent years and whose bodies reportedly bore signs of torture but whose deaths were not investigated.

According to Joshua Cooper, director of the Hawaii Center for Human Rights, Ms Gaer also called the current lack of public means for filing complaints the “most serious obstacle” Cambodia faced in adhering to the Torture Convention, and asked for an update on the 20 Uighur asylum seekers Cambodia deported back to China in December.

Rights groups have accused Cambodia of violating a convention clause that bars member states from sending asylum seekers back to countries where they face the possibility of torture. The government has insisted that the deportation was legal and publicly washed its hands of any responsibility for their fate.

She and other committee members also asked about Cambodia’s progress toward setting up an independent body to investigate torture claims–a key condition of an optional protocol to the Torture Convention which Cambodia ratified in 2007–and whether the government planned to include torture-specific language in its own laws.

Though its reply to the panel’s questions was not due until the next day, the country’s ambassador to Geneva, Sun Suon, used his opening remarks on Tuesday both to concede some shortfalls and highlight a few gains, including “progress” toward an independent investigating body.

“We acknowledge that while progress [has been] achieved, much works remain to be done,” he said, according to a statement posted on the committee’s website. “The government is aware of its shortcomings…especially those associated with financial and human resources constraint.”

Like government officials in Phnom Penh, however, Mr Suon stopped short of acknowledging cases of torture by police.

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