A group of nongovernmental organizations called on Cambodia’s government on Tuesday to take concrete steps toward ending the practice of forced confessions amidst a global effort to mark International Day in Support of Victims of Torture.
The seven NGOs, including prominent domestic rights groups Adhoc, Licadho, and the Cambodian Defenders Project, held a ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh highlighting the stories of several Cambodians in attendance who said they had endured torture at the hands of the authorities.
Adhoc Director Thun Saray said the majority of Cambodia’s torture cases had occurred in police detention centers.
“By law, the police are allowed to detain suspects for [up to] 24 hours,” he said.
“Often, during temporary detention, the police don’t allow suspects to have their lawyers present. This makes the victims susceptible to torture for confession.”
Thun Saray said that he frequently heard testimony about how police had shackled the hands and feet of suspects while intimidating them into an admission of guilt.
He added that Cambodia is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and, as such, is bound to work toward ending these “inhumane acts.”
“The government must take immediate measures to prevent and stop torture and other forms of abuse and impunity,” he said.
“The government must prosecute those responsible for using torture,” he said.
Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said that her organization documented 135 cases of torture in Cambodia in 2011 and that the majority of the victims were police suspects and prisoners.
“In some cases, police beat and electrocuted the suspects,” Pung Chhiv Kek said.
“The police use torture because there is no prosecution against police practices. Most victims are afraid to file complaints with the court because they are concerned about their security,” she said.
“The government must act immediately to stop torture.”
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Cambodia needs stronger judicial standards to prevent the practice of torture in detention.
“The government must amend certain articles of the law to allow for prosecution against police officers using torture,” he said.
In his message for the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all countries to provide concrete support for victims of torture and prove their commitment to fighting the practice.
“In some cases, this is part of a deliberate state policy of instilling fear and intimidating its population,” he said.
“In too many countries, people’s legitimate demands for freedom and human rights are met with brutal repression. Even when regimes change, torture often persists and a culture of impunity remains.”
He noted the obligation of states not only to prevent torture but to provide all torture victims with effective and prompt redress, compensation, and appropriate social, psychological, medical, and other forms of rehabilitation.
And U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on all nations to live up to the pledges they have made to prevent, prosecute, and punish the use of “torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.”
“As the Convention Against Torture states unequivocally, the use of torture is illegal, under any circumstances, with no exceptions,” she said in a statement.
“I call on all those states that have still not introduced laws that criminalize torture to do so urgently, and all those that already have such legislation to redouble their efforts to ensure it is fully implemented.”
Legacy of torture
Torture is a particularly harrowing topic in Cambodia, where up to two million Cambodians died during the rule of the Khmer Rouge from 1975-1979.
A UN-backed war crimes tribunal in February sentenced former Khmer Rouge prison chief Kaing Guek Eav to life imprisonment for overseeing Phnom Penh’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison where as many as 16,000 men, women, and children are believed to have been brutalized before being sent to their deaths.
Survivors of the notorious prison, also known as S-21, have described how hunger drove them to eat insects, and how they were forced to eat food beside the corpses of starved fellow prisoners.
Other allege that prisoners were beaten, electrocuted, smothered with plastic bags or had water poured into their noses, and that children were taken from parents and dropped to their deaths or that some prisoners were bled to death.
The Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), as the tribunal is formally known, is currently trying former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his co-defendants—Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea and former head of state Khieu Samphan—on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
But despite spending nearly U.S. $150 million since it was established six years ago, the ECCC has handed down only one sentence and has been mired in allegations of corruption and interference.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre, and other Cambodian officials have often expressed opposition to any further prosecutions in the Tribunal beyond the second trial.
Reported by Den Ayuthya for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.