Cambodians continue to suffer torture and other forms of ill-treatment in police stations and prisons despite the country’s commitment to international treaties banning such practices, according to a report ahead of the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on Thursday.
The report, released Wednesday by local rights group Licadho, called on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to pass legislation outlawing acts of torture and ill-treatment which are aimed mostly at extracting confessions from suspects.
Licadho said it had found “no palpable change in the type, frequency and severity of abuse reported in recent years” in police and prison custody, adding that inmates continue to describe being beaten until bloodied or unconscious with objects including guns, sticks, iron rods, stun batons and electric cables.
Victims of abuse regularly include females, juveniles and those experiencing mental health problems, the rights group said in the report, entitled “Torture & Ill-Treatment, Testimony from Inside Cambodia's Police Stations and Prisons.”
“Torture is practiced in Cambodia, but there is no measure to prevent this practice,” Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that authorities often employ abuse to extract confessions or money from prisoners and suspects.
“We have observed that judges rarely asked suspects whether they were subjected to torture, even though they physically display bruises, swollen faces and broken arms,” he said.
Am Sam Ath urged the government to establish laws explicitly preventing torture, as well as an independent national framework and civil department to resolve complaints against abuse by police in Cambodia’s justice system.
Licadho said that in addition to regular beatings, it also received reports of other abuses including inmates being dragged on the ground by their hair, being forced to stand on one leg for prolonged periods, guards standing and stamping on bodies and faces, and objects being forced into mouths.
The group said it recorded testimonies of cigarette burns, forced prolonged kneeling—including in direct sunlight, choking, and the use of electro-shock weaponry for torture.
“This alarming testimony leaves us in no doubt that Cambodian authorities are failing in their responsibilities to prevent and punish acts of torture and ill-treatment,” said Naly Pilorge, Licadho director.
“Authorities appear to be incapable of fulfilling their obligations to end torture in Cambodia. Not only that, they also seem unwilling to take practical steps to address the ongoing abuse.”
Cambodia ratified the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in 2007, which requires the government to establish an independent National Preventative Mechanism to monitor and prevent torture in places of detention within one year of ratification.
Licadho said that Cambodia has failed to establish the mechanism, and only set up an inter-ministerial committee made up of various government officials in 2009, which the rights group called “neither independent nor effective.”
Licadho said it also regularly documents abuse by authorities at the point of arrest and in transit, as well as by other inmates once a detainee is placed in confinement, often at the direction of officials.
According to the report, conditions in some places of detention, including the denial of medical care, may amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment—particularly with regard to the handling of people experiencing mental health problems.
“Cambodian authorities should be ashamed that this type of abuse continues unabated, that protection measures are so weak, and recourse to justice so limited,” said Nget Sokun, Licadho’s prison supervisor.
“Sadly, Licadho believes that the real rate of torture and ill-treatment is much higher than documented because so much abuse remains hidden.”
The rights group said that while it is impossible to know the true extent of torture and ill-treatment of detainees in Cambodia, it is clear that they continue to be subjected to abuse in custody, have little recourse, and that those responsible are rarely brought to justice.
“For as long as the Cambodian courts continue to accept confessions obtained under duress, whilst men, women and children continue to be beaten, threatened and maimed in the custody of the state and whilst those who order, facilitate or commit torture do so with impunity, Cambodia’s true commitment to the absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment will remain in serious doubt,” Naly Pilorge said.
In its report, Licadho included a dozen recommendations to the Cambodian authorities, including the preparation of specific anti-torture legislation and the establishment of a truly independent National Preventative Mechanism.
It also called for a civilian oversight body to effectively deal with complaints against the police and other law enforcement personnel.
Council of Ministers Secretary of State and spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed Licadho’s report, saying treatment in police stations and prisons was within the law.
“I can’t accept Licadho’s report, because in most of the cases we have complied with the law,” he said.
Last week, Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng told U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi, who on Tuesday wrapped up a 10-day fact finding mission to the country, that Cambodian authorities “would not tolerate” the practice of torture in detention.
In December, representatives of the U.N. Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture visited Cambodia for five days, making unannounced visits to places of detention, including prisons, police stations and drug rehabilitation centers.
At the end of the visit, the delegation said that Cambodia had fallen behind in obligations it made to monitor the treatment of prisoners.
It urged Phnom Penh to set up an independent national body to monitor detention centers.
Reported by Keo Nimol for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.