Cambodian authorities must conduct a thorough investigation into the death of a five-month old girl who was incarcerated with her mother at a correction facility in the capital Phnom Penh, a rights group official said Tuesday, calling for protections to ensure such tragedies do not recur.
Tevy—whose name has been changed to hide her identity—died on Jan. 26 from “pneumonia and severe malnutrition,” local rights group Licadho said Tuesday. She had sustained a thigh bone fracture eight days earlier in Correctional Centre 2 (CC2), where her mother was sent for pre-trial detention in mid-2019 for alleged possession of U.S. $2.50 worth of methamphetamine while eight months pregnant.
While it was unclear how the infant had been injured, Licadho said that she was treated for the fracture at the National Children’s Hospital before being sent back to CC2, despite prison staff asking if she and her mother could stay overnight for observation.
Over the next week, Tevy’s mother noticed that the baby had a fever and would not stop coughing, but a follow up appointment did not result in any further treatment or a refill of the medicine she had been prescribed. By Jan. 25, Tevy was struggling to breathe and transferred to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, where doctors tried to clear her lungs of mucus, but she died the following morning.
Licadho noted that even though she was in the late stages of pregnancy, Tevy’s mother was never provided a lawyer and unaware of her right to apply for bail, saying that the girl’s death “once again illustrates the urgent need for authorities to prioritize bail for mothers with children” and urging authorities to “take immediate steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
The group’s senior investigator, Am Sam Ath, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Tevy’s death “raised several questions,” and suggested that the hospitals she was treated at failed to cooperate with the country’s General Department of Prisons to adequately care for her.
“There must be a thorough investigation into the death,” he said.
“We must seek measures to prevent these incidents and increase cooperation between the hospitals and the Department of Prisons.”
Am Sam Ath told RFA that hospitals should observe imprisoned patients for at least 24 hours before returning them to a detention facility.
General Department of Prisons spokesman Nuth Savna refused to comment when contacted by RFA about Tevy’s death, saying more information is needed.
“I am investigating the case and reaching out to the prison,” he said. “I need all the facts before I can comment.”
Children in prison
According to Licadho, there are currently 103 children and 43 pregnant women incarcerated in the 18 prisons the group monitors—numbers it said have nearly doubled since Jan. 1, 2017, when authorities declared a “war on drugs” in Cambodia.
CC2—the only prison in Cambodia built to hold women and children—has an official capacity of 350 inmates, but currently holds 1,850 detainees.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who first called in 2015 for amnesty for pregnant women and mothers incarcerated with young children, urged the Ministries of Justice and Women’s Affairs to review the situation of women in pre-trial detention in February last year, citing the harsh conditions they face in prison.
Earlier this week, he again called for immediate action to speed up the trials of women in pre-trial detention, offering to rent out hotel rooms for trial hearings if courtrooms weren’t available.
Licadho said it agrees with the prime minister that “children and pregnant women do not belong behind bars.”
“We believe that babies and young children should always be with their mothers, but we do not believe that prison is a safe or healthy environment for them to grow up in,” the group said.
The group called on authorities to ask everyone who is eligible for bail if they wish to apply, especially in cases of vulnerable populations, such as women with babies and juvenile detainees, and to prioritize the bail hearings of vulnerable populations so that they do not languish in pre-trial detention for lengthy and undetermined periods of time.
It asked that they ensure pre-trial detention is used appropriately and as a last resort, with proper consideration of vulnerable populations; provide every charged person access to adequate legal representation and correctly inform them of the charges against them, as well as the procedures of bail application; and publish guidelines on how to handle cases involving mothers and pregnant women to reduce rates of their incarceration in the future.
Lastly, the group urged that mothers and pregnant women who are convicted of misdemeanors be given suspended sentences.
All pregnant women and mothers in prison with their children, currently serving pre-trial detention, should be granted bail or have their trials completed before International Women’s Day on March 8, it said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.