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Cambodia: Plan to Reform Torture Prevention Committee

(Apr. 19, 2016) Although plans have not been made concrete, Cambodia’s Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, has announced that the government’s Committee Against Torture will be reformed. The announcement came on April 8, predating the April 13, 2016, release of the annual U.S. Department of State human rights report that criticized Cambodia on the issue of torture. Kheng said, “[n]ow we will reform this committee into [one] which can be trusted by the public, starting from the restructuring of membership of this committee – membership for those who are independent,” and “the government will look at the United Nations principles that could lead to the appropriate restructuring of membership.” (Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon & Bun Sengkong, Torture Reform Uncertain, PHNOM PENH POST (Apr. 18, 2016).)

Kheng has claimed that torture has been “greatly reduced” in Cambodian prisons, but Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, called that claim “laughable.” Robertson advocated access for U.N. and non-governmental experts to the country’s prisons to investigate actual conditions there. (Id.) The Interior Ministry did hold inspections of prisons that were labeled “unannounced” in August 2015, in an effort to improve the treatment of the inmates. However, the Minister sent a letter in advance notifying officials at the prisons that such visits would be forthcoming at some point in a one-month period. (Khuon Narim, Sar Kheng Announces Month of Surprise Prison Inspections, CAMBODIAN DAILY (Aug. 12, 2015), .)

U.S. State Department Report

The recent U.S. Department of State report referred to “continued prisoner abuse,” and said that though some officials have been punished for misbehavior, impunity for carrying out abuse persists. (U.S. Department of State, Cambodia: Executive Summary, COUNTRY REPORTS ON HUMAN RIGHTS PRACTICES FOR 2015 (last visited Apr. 18, 2016).) The report goes on to detail beatings and other types of abuse inflicted on those in prison or detained by police. It states that “credible reports” show that “military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and on occasion severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation.” It adds that nongovernmental organizations have reported that “[k]icking, punching, and pistol whipping were the most common methods of reported physical abuse, but authorities also used electric shock, suffocation, caning, and whipping with wires.” (Id. § 1.c, “Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”) The Report also states that mistreatment may continue in some cases until a confession is obtained and such confessions are admitted as evidence in court. (Id.)

Background on Cambodia and International Law on Torture

In 2007, Cambodia ratified the Optional Protocol to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, but it has not yet established a fully independent “National Prevention Mechanism” as required by the Protocol. (Sassoon & Bun, supra; Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, U.N. Res. A/RES/57/199 (Dec. 18, 2002, in force from June 22, 2006), art. 3, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website; Status of Ratification, OHCHR website  (last visited Apr. 18, 2016).)

The existing Cambodian Committee Against Torture was created in 2009 and went through one restructuring, in September 2015. It reportedly is viewed as not truly impartial, although the Vice-Chair of the Committee, Nuth Sa An, said on April 17, 2016, that he was not aware of what reforms might now be made. (Sassoon & Bun, supra.) Wan-Hea Lee of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Cambodia, said that he hopes the restructured National Prevention Mechanism will be in conformity with the provisions of the Optional Protocol and create a body independent “from the very authorities whom it is responsible for monitoring.” (Id.)