arly this year, 23-year-old Nop Ry became a statistic – one young man among hundreds who report having faced police abuse or torture while being arrested or imprisoned in Cambodia.
Early this year, 23-year-old Nop Ry became a statistic – one young man among hundreds who report having faced police abuse or torture while being arrested or imprisoned in Cambodia. In a case study set to coincide with today’s International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Cambodian rights group Licadho notes that “levels of torture and ill-treatment in Cambodia remain high, that avenues for complaint are limited and that those responsible for abuse are rarely punished”.
In Ry’s case, that allegedly translated to brutal punishment at the hands of a vindictive police officer in the country’s remote, northeastern Ratanakkiri province. After confronting the officer during a wedding party for having beaten him up in the past, Ry said he was rapidly cuffed and pulled outside. “After being handcuffed, police tortured me by repeatedly kicking, punching, and pulling with force to put me on their parked motorbike. I was taken to be detained at the commune police station where the police committed worse violence on me,” Ry said on Tuesday.
“They stripped off my clothes, just leaving me in underwear, and tied both my arms behind my back with hammock ropes. More critically, they shackled my leg to a table at the police station. They beat and pushed me against the wall, and then repeatedly poured water and beer on my head.” Two friends who witnessed the arrest followed him to the station where their attempts to intervene further enraged the officers, said Ry. The vindictive policeman “ran at [the men], punching their mouths repeatedly. They both received the same torture like me: they were stripped, and had their arms tied back with hammock ropes while each leg was shackled.” The officers continued showering the men with blows and insults for hours, at times threatening to urinate on the pair, according to Ry.
In the end, they were released the next morning only because a group of reporters came by the station to inquire about the incident. Over the past six-and-a-half years, Licadho has received more than 500 “detailed allegations of torture or ill-treatment by officials in Cambodian police stations and prisons” among the 11,000 prisoners and recently released inmates its monitors have interviewed. During the first four months of this year alone, the group received 49 allegations of abuse and torture. Given that many interviews take place inside the prison, often under the watchful eye of guards, the number is likely far higher, according to the group.
“Licadho’s records show that most of those who reported brutality by police or prison officials since 2008 described being beaten, kicked, slapped or punched, often until they were bleeding and unconscious. Many were beaten all over the body including on the head and neck. Some had their heads smashed against walls,” the report notes. Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director, Chak Sopheap, said institutionalized police abuse had a long reach.
“If you look at the kind of cruel treatment or punishment, not necessarily in prison, but in the January [garment strikers] crackdown for example – you see many people beaten who were arrested,” she said. Sopheap pointed to the case of 23 unionists, NGO workers, strikers and bystanders who were arrested in the capital during two days of violence in January and spent nearly a week in secret custody far from Phnom Penh. The group spent five months in jail before being found guilty of committing violence but were released last month. “They, too, were beaten quite cruelly,” she said. Over the years, abuse has shown little signs of abating. Seven years after signing a UN protocol against torture, the government has failed to set up a required independent body for monitoring abuse in prisons. A committee established in its place – made up by government officials from different ministries – “has done very little of actual substance”, Licadho reports.
“There has been very little change in the proportion of those reporting abuse over recent years.” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan stressed that the government has “no such policy to torture anyone,” but said they were not ignorant of the problems within the penal system. “We do not encourage the people who work in that environment in the prison to respond with violence or torture. It might happen, not in general but in particular cases,” he said. “We understand that a change in mindset is needed.” But Siphan took umbrage at the report’s claim that the situation had failed to improve. “We’ve improved a lot,” he said “We’ve tried to build new correction centers; separate the worst guys away from the crowd,” he said.
“There’s a prisons committee that reviews the cases” alleging abuse and “we try our best to control that, with law and order”. But the Licadho report suggests that frequently police abuse goes hand-in-hand with the troubled judiciary. “Many of those interviewed said that they were beaten in order to force them to confess or pay money to their abusers. Those who cannot read Khmer were forced to thumbprint confessions they did not understand,” the report explains. Confessions are frequently used by judges as the sole guide when adjudicating a case. At times this has aided stunningly unjust decisions. In 2004, two innocent men were arrested for the slaying of unionist Chea Vichea.
Police quickly extracted a confession from Born Samnang, who thumb-printed a statement saying he was the killer. Though Samnang immediately retract the claim – telling reporters and the court he had been beaten until he signed – the “confession” remained a cornerstone in the case against him and Sok Sam Oeun. Both men were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison, a ruling that was overturned by the Supreme Court last September. In Samnang’s case, the confession came during the early hours of police custody.
“The treatment of detainees in Cambodia’s police stations is of particular concern because the law does not permit a suspect to speak to a lawyer or family member during the first 24 hours of custody and detainees are rarely informed of their rights upon arrest,” Licadho’s report notes. “It is during this initial period that confessions are usually extracted, often under duress.
Once in prison, abuse appears to abate – though not entirely. Those in prison report premeditated violence at the hands of both guards and other prisoners – particularly those working at the behest of officials. Inmates note that they have been beaten up for complaining about poor treatment, and prison conditions, and threatened against reporting the abuse. “In contrast to the stark, short-lived and sometimes random brutality meted out in police custody, abuse in prison is more likely to be sustained, targeted and premeditated,” the report notes, adding that though the figures are smaller than that of abuse during police custody, “inmates are less likely to complain of abuse when it occurred in the place in which they are still held and when they are still under the control of their abusers.
“Punitive measures against abusers are rare, with the authors noting that they are “not aware of any successful prosecutions of law enforcement officials for torture related crimes in recent years”. Even when complaints are filed, they appear rarely taken up. In Ry’s case, he and his friends filed a complaint with the provincial court shortly after their detention. They have yet to hear a reply. “I still remember this brutal torture,” Ry said. “I want to see the end of torture by police against anyone. I was innocent, but they beat up my friends and me so cruelly.