Human Right NGO Calls for Juvenile Release

The entrance to the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Kandal province, which is intended to become Cambodia's primary prison for minors. Photo: LICADHO

PHNOM PENH – Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO has called for an end to the incarceration of children, saying it is an absurd practice that denies the children's freedoms and their opportunities for development.

“The impact of imprisonment on children is severe, and further exacerbated by the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that plague Cambodia’s prison system,” the NGO said in a statement on International Children’s Day on June 1.

As of April 2023, there were 1,658 minors being held in the 19 jails that LICADHO is monitoring, a rise of more than 30 percent compared to the previous year.

More than 96 percent of them are males. Of those, 52 percent are held in pre-trial detention, while another 37 percent were awaiting final verdicts.

A total of 30 young women and girls who are incarcerated were pregnant at the time the census was made, and there were at least 82 young children living in prisons with their imprisoned moms.

The NGO said that most of the detained minors were likely to have been arrested in connection to non-violent drug offenses, as a rise in drug-related arrests was observed in 2022 in the midst of a drug crackdown.

Bail and diversion should be used for these cases, it said, stressing that the rights to a fair trial and the welfare of the children are disregarded because of the practice of pre-trial detention.

Justice Ministry Spokesperson Chin Malin said guidelines had been issued to mitigate prison overcrowding.

But despite the fact the campaign ended two years ago, the judiciary is still advised to take necessary measures in line with the seriousness of cases, he said.

Malin pointed out that pre-trial detention is the last resort for vulnerable people, such as women, minors, and diseased people.

“There has been a practice, and nothing is new,” he said. “Solving the overcrowding in prison involves many steps in accordance with the law in effect. Detained people cannot be released just because of the finding of LICADHO. It is not correct.”

LICADHO stressed that alternatives to incarceration were offered by the 2016 Law on Juvenile Justice, which promotes diversion and community service as alternatives to prosecution and suspended sentences or conditional release as alternatives to imprisonment, for teenagers aged from 14 to 17 at the time of the alleged act.

“And yet these alternatives are underused, and the number of minors detained in Cambodia continues to rise at an alarming rate,” it said.

“Attempts to address this crisis have thus far failed. Rather than seeking to limit the number of children in detention, the government has instead built a new prison labeled as a Youth Rehabilitation Centre.”

General Department of Prisons Spokesman Nouth Savna said​ the majority of the detained children have been transferred to a dedicated prison in Kandal province, which is established as the country’s primary juvenile detention center for children and minors up to the age of 24 years.

“Only a minor number of the children is detained in the adult prison,” he said. “They have been sent to the center in Kandal province.”

The dedicated center was established in December 2021.

According to LICADHO, 130 boys who were convicted have been transferred there, from as far as Banteay Meanchey province, putting a lot of distance between the detainees and their relatives as it is so far the country’s only center for convicted minors.

Nouth Savna said after the election, authorities will facilitate the minors with pre-trial detention to be released on bail.

Lack of basic necessities

The NGO said many detained children claimed they have never had the opportunity to consult with an attorney or request bail, despite the fact that minors accused of crimes in Cambodia are required to receive a legal advisor.

“Prisons monitored by LICADHO – in which minors are not always separated from the adult prison population – had an average occupancy rate of 250 percent of their official capacities as of April,” the statement said. “Three were over 450 percent capacity,” it added.

The lack of access to sufficient food, drink, sleeping quarters, and family contact, as well as having to pay for these necessities, is a common complaint among those who are detained, including children.

“Access to healthcare and nutritional support are equally inadequate, endangering the lives of both children and their mothers,” said LICADHO.

The organization called for an end to the needless detention of children, an increase in on-bail releases, the guarantee to provide every minor with a lawyer, and an improvement in detention conditions.

Last August, Cambodia expressed its intention of setting up a juvenile court that would solely handle cases involving minors who are under 18 years old.

The establishment remains blurred due to a lack of human resources and financial resources to ensure the court could be up-to-standard.

Cambodia celebrates the 2023’s International Children’s Day under the theme “Together we care for, protect and develop all children under the shadow of peace in the digital age” and World Day Against Child Labor on June 12 under the theme “Justice Society for All to End Child Labor.”

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