Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Wednesday hinted that convicted inmates serving prison sentences could possibly be released to reduce overcrowding, in parallel with judicial reforms announced last week to fast-track trial proceedings for misdemeanors.
At a meeting to discuss human trafficking, Interior Minister Sar Kheng told reporters on Wednesday that prisoners who were close to finishing their prison sentences “will probably be released” to reduce overcrowding and reduce expenditure on prisons. The government has also justified these releases as a way to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus in Cambodia.
He did not detail if this would require the government to issue pardons or commute sentences, which is normally an annual exercise conducted during major religious festivals, the next being Pchum Ben in September.
He pegged the total number of prison releases at around 10,000, which, he said, would happen through release of convicted individuals, as well as the reforms announced by Justice Minister Koeut Rith on May 18.
“Likely, we will release 10,000 people, but they will not be in one or two provinces. They will be spread all over the places,” he said. “We will find means to deal with the released people.”
Sar Kheng said the government will send lists of released prisoners to local authorities to monitor their progress, adding that anyone caught violating the law would be arrested immediately.
The Ministry of Justice launched a parallel campaign to reduce the logjam at the country’s courts, asking judges to fast-track misdemeanor cases using existing Criminal Procedures Code provisions, increase bail approvals and to hand out more suspended sentences.
The reforms are expected to be an ongoing campaign and would run in parallel to potential prisoner releases, but would have to comply with existing legal procedures, said Chin Malin, a Justice Ministry spokesperson.
“It has to be in accordance with legal producers and the judges have rights and no one can order,” he said.
Chin Malin added that the commission formed to grant pardons and commute sentences would consider releasing additional prisoners who “behaved well” and had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences.
“If they committed minor offence and near finish and they behave well, the commission can study and forgive or reduce their prison sentences,” he said on Wednesday. He too could not detail what mechanism would be used to release convicted individuals.
According to statistics released by Sar Kheng in March, there are currently 39,000 detainees in Cambodian prisons, around 11,000 of which have been convicted of a crime, leaving more than two-thirds of the total inmates on pre-trial detention.
The Justice Ministry said last week there were close to 40,000 pending cases in Cambodian courts, of which 12,000 were in Phnom Penh itself, and at least 6,200 were related to drug offenses.
Cambodia’s “war on drugs” has been widely criticized by human rights organizations for it non-nuanced approach to jailing a large number of people to appease public concerns revealed in a leaked public survey from 2017, which showed that drug use was the single biggest concern for Cambodians.
On May 13, rights group Amnesty International released a damning report documenting various human rights abuses committed along the law enforcement chain as part of the Cambodian government’s reaction to the drug issue. The report documented issues plaguing Cambodian law enforcement, the judiciary and drug rehabilitation programs, which resulted in frequent rights abuses, while also highlighting the pitfalls of severe criminalization of drug use.
“Over three years since its launch, the country’s campaign against drugs has not only failed in its primary mission of reducing drug use and drug-related harms, it has led to serious and systematic human rights violations,” the report reads.
The report revealed that at least 55,770 people have been arrested on suspicion of using or selling drugs between January 2017 and March 2020. National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) reports showed that Cambodia’s prison population had skyrocketed by 78 percent since the campaign started, from 21,900 at the end of 2016 to over 38,990 in March 2020, even though Cambodia’s prisons have an estimated capacity of just 26,593.
Pech Pisey, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said he urged the relevant authorities to speed up the procedures being used to release certain convicted individuals, while ensuring that the process was fair to inmates.
“Importantly, we want to see the procedures used for releasing [people in prison] or giving them bail are corruption-free, transparent and equal for all detainees,” he said.