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Rights Advocates Urge Swift Passage of Law on Juvenile Detention

Inside view of Prey Sar prison in Cambodia, file photo.
Inside view of Prey Sar prison in Cambodia, file photo.

Rights groups say the Cambodian government should prioritize the passage of a law that would provide better guidance on the treatment of juveniles by the court system.

A law currently in its draft stage provides for the release of juveniles to parental and court supervision, rather than pushing young defendants into the country’s already over-crowded prisons.

That could have implications for some 500 juveniles currently in prison, and so should be a priority, advocates say.

Kong Chhan, an adviser to the Ministry of Social Affairs, which is responsible for the law, said children under 14 years old will not be brought to court if charged with a minor crime. Instead, they’ll face community service punishments for petty offenses, or even be made to study schoolwork, he said. Meanwhile, judges and other court officials will have to study new methods to deal with children, he said.

The Ministry of Social Affairs will evaluate the families of children who commit crimes, he said. The law provides for representation of children by lawyers in dealing with police. But it should not be seen as soft on crime, Kong Chhan said. “This does not mean we encourage children to commit crimes. If they don’t do what we require, we will seize them and find other ways to deal with them.”

Bruce Grant, chief of child protection for Unicef’s Cambodia office, said the agency will support the government with training and workshops on juvenile justice and children’s rights.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the government should hurry to finish the law to better protect children’s rights. “Right now, we don’t have a law that would help children in jail,” he said. “If we have this law, it would help children a lot regarding their rights and their situation in prisons, and what rights they have.”

“Some children shouldn’t be in jail,” he said. “They are at the age to study and to grow spiritually.”

Kuy Bun Sorn, director general of the Ministry of Interior’s prison department, said the law will be good to have on the books, “since it could help juveniles.”