Visiting Takhmao prison

By Siena Anstis
Yesterday, I went with the LICADHO Prison Office staff to Takhmao prison on the outskirts of Phom Penh to conduct interviews with inmates and visit Leang Sokchoeun. He used to work with LICADHO, but was arrested in May 2010 and accused of involvement in the distribution of anti-government leaflets. He was charged with disinformation under Article 62 of the UNTAC law. On May 29, 2011, he will have been in prison for one year and is slated to remain incarcerated for another year. Sokchoeun’s mother was with us, bringing her son bags of fruits and vegetables. The government gives each prisoner only 0.70 USD for food per day (to learn more about prison conditions in Cambodia, read Dararith’s story). Like other prisoners, Sokchouen relies on external support to survive. Sokchouen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, but they have not yet received any information on its status.

Shortly after Sokchoeun’s sentencing, LICADHO published this briefing paper on the “Role of the Cambodian Judiciary in Political Cases.” The paper highlights a number of irregularities in Sokchouen’s trial that demonstrate how the government, the police and the courts work together to punish Cambodian activists. Another report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), on the situation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in 2011, underlines that “the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence continues to be one of the most important factors preventing Cambodia from developing a fair, just and inclusive society based on the rule of law.”

Takhmao is Cambodia’s ‘model prison,’ built with funding from the Australian government through their Cambodia Criminal Justice Project. The Prison Fellowship, a Born Again Christian NGO founded by former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, also provides some educational programs for inmates. Juvenile, male and female prisoners live in separate areas, which is rare in Cambodian prisons. Despite these benefits, this prison is still 332 per cent over its capacity.

Prisoners hang on bars as we walk by to the visiting area. Some stand in small groups outside. I am told that each prisoner gets about 1-2 hours of exercise per day. However, corruption in Cambodia is pervasive and it is not clear whether this is a privilege that inmates pay the prison guards for, or whether it is a rule that gets enforced regardless.

Overcrowding in prisons is one of many problems in the Cambodian judicial and penal systems. Another disturbing issue documented by LICADHO here is that prisoners must pay for transportation to their trials. Many prisoners are poor and cannot afford this fee and thus are tried in absentia. That same report by LICADHO also notes that less than one per cent of inmates in the prisons nearest to Phnom Penh, where the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal is located, have appeals pending.

For more information on prisons in Cambodia, you can consult LICADHO’s “Prison Issues” page.

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