Cambodian prisons are overcrowded, and the country’s criminal justice system must begin granting bail to citizens awaiting trial, the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho says in a new report.
Already troubled by violations of prisoners’ rights, disproportionate sentencing, and a rampant culture of corruption, the situation grew worse in 2017 when the numbers of prisoners dramatically increased when Phnom Penh began a war on drugs, the report “Time For Bail: Ending Needless Mass Detention" says.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Licadho monitoring manager Am Sam Ath said “All 18 prisons that Licadho has worked with are holding three times as many prisoners as they should.”
“If the number of prisoners continues to increase, they will face even more issues,” Am Sam Ath said, adding that while Cambodia’s Prisons Department has built more prisons to accommodate the surge in numbers, these are still not enough.
Reached for comment, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin acknowledged the increase in numbers, saying that as many as half of those detained while awaiting trial are being held on drug charges.
“Pretrial detentions are needed to maintain security and social order and to protect witnesses and for court proceedings,” he said, adding that if NGOs report that judges are holding suspects beyond the limits for pretrial detention, “we will take action.”
Overcrowding in the prisons exacerbates other problems already present, especially for at-risk groups in the prison population, Licadho says in its report.
Pregnant women or mothers with young children must deliver and care for their children behind bars, for example, while juveniles held for long periods before trial fall behind in their education and lose contact with their families and communities, Licadho said.
This, combined with exposure to adult criminal behavior in prison, could lead to them committing crimes in the future, the report says.
People charged with crimes are sometimes held for as long as 22 months before trial, “and are often treated as if they are guilty until proven innocent,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge says in the report.
If Cambodia’s court system uses bail more effectively, fewer mothers will be forced to care for their children behind bars, and fewer juveniles will be held, as those below the age of 16 would not be held at all, and those between 16 and 18 could still apply for bail, Licadho says.
Reported by Eugene Whong with additional reporting by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service.