International Women's Day Highlights Reality of Life in Prison for Cambodian Women

Published on March 17, 2008
Female prisoners watch the Women's Day celebrations at Takhmao prison

There are over 640 women currently detained in prisons all over Cambodia and on a day that is meant to celebrate women everywhere and promote the rights of women, LICADHO, partner NGOs, comedians and musicians spent the day remembering these vulnerable members of society.

On Saturday March 8 LICADHO and partner NGOs celebrated International Women's Day by distributing food, drinks, clothes and materials to female prisoners, children living in prison and female prison guards across 20 prisons in Cambodia. There were also performances by comedians and musicians at two prisons to help celebrate the day. These donations are greatly needed in a prison system which must subsist on a budget of 1,500 riel (USD$0.38) per prisoner per day to cover the costs of food, water, electricity, clothing and medical care.

Coinciding with the Women's Day celebrations LICADHO also released its latest report on prison conditions entitled "The Story of a Mother and a Child". This report profiles the story of one particular mother and child who spent several years in prison living together. The report reveals the harsh realities of life in Cambodian prisons where prisoners must cope with limited access to food and clean water, overcrowding of prison cells, routine denial of quality medical services and violence towards prisoners from prison guards and other inmates.

Other findings illustrated in the report are the corruption and inefficiency of Cambodia's prison and judicial systems which contribute to an ever increasing prison population. Many prisoners serve extra time during pre-trial detention, and gain longer prison sentences as they are often too poor, or unable to pay the high bribes needed to gain early release, or shorter sentences. The majority of prisoners do not have adequate access to legal representation and are uninformed and unaided during their trial and imprisonment. Many are also ignorant of their legal right to appeal.

In January 2008, LICADHO's prison researchers recorded 235 cases of excessive pre-trial detention in 18 prisons out of the country's 26 that it monitors. In one such case, a man who was arrested in September 2004 on a charge of assault and robbery had been held without trial for almost three and a half years, which is far beyond the legal six month limit.

The overcrowding in Cambodia's prisons is further compounded by the procedure of holding detainees while prosecution appeals are pending. For example if a prosecutor appeals the verdict of a trial, the detainee remains incarcerated until the appeal court hears the case. As a consequence, detainees who have been acquitted, or convicted prisoners who have already served their prison sentences, can remain in prison for years awaiting prosecution appeal hearings. Waiting times are also excessive given that there is only one national appeals court for the whole country.

In January 2008, LICADHO registered 39 cases of prisoners waiting for appeal hearings. One particular case involved two 18-year old prisoners who were arrested in October 2004 on robbery charges. In 2006 they were sentenced to two years jail and should have been released for time served in pre-trial detention, however due to the prosecution's appeal the two men are still in prison awaiting their appeal hearing.

Additionally, there have been reports of the abhorrent practice of detaining people who have already served their prison sentence. One example involves a woman who was arrested in 2002 on the charge of transporting drugs. In 2003, she was fined 10,000,000 riel (USD$2,500) however after a prosecution appeal the woman was further sentenced to four years jail. The woman was scheduled to be released in late 2006, however due to the failure of the court and prison officials to keep a record of the woman's prison sentence she was never released. Only after intervention by LICADHO prison researchers was the woman finally released in November 2007.

LICADHO strongly urges the Cambodian government to take action to reform the many systemic problems in the Cambodian prisons system, in particular the need to provide prisoners with adequate access to food, water, sanitation and legal representation.

LICADHO renews its call for the judicial system to not keep pre-trial detainees in prison over the legal limit as provided by Cambodia law. Furthermore, procedures that detain people in prison over their sentence due to the appeal process should be reviewed to allow people to be released while they await their hearing.