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Improvements Remain for Torture Prevention

Twenty-two years ago, the UN designated June 26 as International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, but human rights groups in Cambodia say the country still has work to do to prevent abuse in its penal system.

Lao Monghay, a researcher for the Asian Human Rights Committee in Hong Kong, said the Cambodian government has so far assigned one general prosecutor and his deputies to cooperate with the Ministry of Interior in torture investigations. That has meant no independent inquiries into allegations that prisoners and suspects are abused as they move through the judicial and penal process.

Cambodia’s 1994 constitution includes a convention against torture, and, in 2007, the National Assembly passed a measure requiring an independent committee to prevent the crime.

“We don’t have a committee required by the additional mandate of the international convention against torture,” Lao Monhay said. “There is a transitional mechanism which is not formal and is not acceptable.”

The Ministry of Justice maintains that reports of torture show a sharp decline.

The rights group Licadho, too, said recently that abuse in police custody fell from 450 reported in 1999 to 124 in 2007; reports of torture inside the prisons dropped from 94 to 78 in that period.

A 2008 survey showed an even steeper drop, to 78 cases of abuse in police custody and only seven cases in prisons that year.

“We’ve seen the practice of torture decline, but at the same time we haven’t seen the government taking serious measures to take care of and defend the victims of torture in interrogations,” Am Sam Ath, a leading investigator for the group, said. “They were kicked, beaten or faced other means of torture. New prisoners are usually [mistreated] to have them respect long-term inmates.”

In January the Ministry of Interior, Asian Human Rights Committee, United Nations Commissioner of Human Rights and several other human rights groups held a seminar on the convention against torture.

In his keynote speech, Interior Minister Sar Kheng announced that by 2010 Cambodia will have established a national, independent mechanism mandated by the convention to combat torture.

Lao Monghay recalled that nearly two years ago Koh Kong provincial court convicted a police official in absentia for torturing a small boy.

“At present there isn’t much practice of torture in Cambodia,” he said. “It has decreased. But in the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge, torture was worse than anywhere else, the worst torture. Duch is now being tried for practices of torture.”

Kaing Kek Ieuv, alias Duch, was chief of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prison, Tuol Sleng, where as many as 16,000 prisoners were tortured, interrogated and later executed. He is facing an atrocity crimes trial under the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.

Em Sam An, the Ministry of Interior’s secretary of state in charge of security, also claimed that currently no coerced confessions exist, a positive result of the training of law enforcement officials about human rights.

“Extra-judicial killings are almost zero now,” he said. “Only a few cases have occurred in far, rural areas. And these days there is no practice of torture. Now police officials have realized [their mistakes] and respect the law.”

Police did this without pressure from rights groups or the media, he added.

However, rights groups and press reports may have contributed, Lao Monghay said.

Torture cases take place in every country, he said, including the US, which had its rights reputation tarnished by the housing of terror suspects in a facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But in those countries with a free press, less cases are covered up, such as in dictatorships or communist or military regimes, Lao Monghay said.

Still, Cambodia can use some improvements. Because lawyers, rights workers, relatives or journalists cannot see a suspect for the first 24 hours of arrest, a loophole for abuse exists, he said.

However, Cheam Yeap, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker, said access by diplomats, donor officials and human rights groups prevents torture cases.

“Practices of torture are declining now, he said. “I am not sure if robbers or kidnappers practice this.”

But that’s not enough, Lao Monghay said. The general prosecutor and his torture investigators need the right to secretly and independently check on prisons and police units, without notice, he said.