Cambodia’s vastly overcrowded prisons may violate international laws against cruel and inhuman punishment, as inmates lack sufficient sleeping spaces and access to clean water and fresh air, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
The committee met on March 11 in Geneva, Switzerland, to discuss a report on how Cambodia implements the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to hear responses from Cambodian officials.
The body of independent experts monitors implementation of the multilateral treaty. Governments must submit regular reports on how civil and political rights of individuals — including the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, electoral rights, and rights to due process and a fair trial — are being implemented.
Cambodia’s prison population has doubled since 2015, with 38,977 inmates in facilities that can hold up to 8,804, meaning that the prisons are operating at 343% capacity, said the report issued in September 2021. The report covers the period from June 1, 2020, to May 31, 2021.
“The situation in prisons is perilous to the point that the conditions may constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment given the levels of mental and physical pain experienced by prisoners, the lack of sleeping space, the inadequacy of the water and sanitation, and the limited access to fresh air and health care,” the report said.
The document also referred to allegations of several suspicious deaths of Cambodians while they were in custody, many of which were neither reported nor investigated.
The Cambodian delegation at Friday’s meeting included representatives of the Cambodia Human Rights Committee, Ministry of Labor and Vocational Training, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Women Affairs, Ministry of Interior, and the Permanent Mission of Cambodia to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
Chin Malin, secretary of state of Cambodia’s Justice Ministry, said his country has worked hard to resolve the issue of overcrowded prisons, including by reducing a backlog of court cases, suspending sentences and releasing some Cambodians held in pretrial detention.
Authorities use pretrial detention — which for serious felonies can last for 24 months — because of a lack of legal personnel and the case backlog, Cambodian officials said.
Authorities have released detainees who committed minor offenses, expedited vaccinations and limited visitations to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus within prisons, the officials said.
But a committee expert cited data suggesting that the average prison occupancy in 2020 was beyond 300% of capacity, with overuse of incarceration as one of the underlying causes.
The expert, whose name was not given in a U.N. summary of the meeting, requested more information on what Cambodia was doing to reduce prison overcrowding.
The expert also noted that 30-40% of all detainees were awaiting trials and that there had been frequent allegations that their due process rights were being disregarded. The person wanted to know if Cambodian officials had developed guidelines for judges to use in their decisions on pretrial detention.
Another committee expert asked for more information on the number of deaths in prisons from epidemiological outbreaks, the availability and access to COVID-19 testing, and the rate at which detainees have been vaccinated.
Experts also raised questions about people who suffered from drug addiction being detained and forced to undergo medical treatment under Cambodian law and reports of homeless people detained against their will in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Cambodian officials said the General Department of Prisons was investigating cases of torture and that the government was reviewing its laws to try to prevent the practice. Some officials who have been identified as torturing inmates have been charged and placed in pretrial detention, the delegation said.
Nuth Savana, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons, told RFA that the prison overcrowding has been reduced since last year. The department reported a decrease of 2,000 prisoners this year from the nearly 39,000 inmates that were behind bars in 2021.
Nuth Savana said his department was also working to address the problem of water shortages in detention facilities, saying that more wells are being dug at prisons.
“[Concerning] prisons that face the problem, we are working with the International Committee of the Red Cross to create filtered water systems, such as in Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces,” he said. “We’ve dug more wells.”
Prisons in Kampong Cham and Kampong Chhnang provinces have filtered water system installed, he said.
“We have prioritized the lack of water first,” Nuth Savana said. “As I said, the problem of water shortages is an old report.”
Ny Sokha, a human rights defender and president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, said overcrowding continues to be a problem because the government has not paid much attention to it.
The situation is still serious enough that it affects the detainees physically and psychologically, he said.
Ny Sokha, who was himself a prisoner of conscience, also said the congestion could be due to an increase in the number of drug users who have been incarcerated.
“If we cannot solve the problem of overcrowded prisons, it can affect prisoners’ health and their mental state, so that when they are released, they cannot be good human resources,” he said. “They become sick and suffer from debilitating diseases, so it’s not good for them or for our society.”
The U.N. Human Rights Committee is scheduled to hold another public meeting on Friday and plans to issue its concluding observations and recommendations on Cambodia by March 25.
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