Justice Ministry Studying Alternatives to Prison for Some Inmates

At the urging of the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, the Justice Ministry on Thursday said it was studying the feasibility of a pilot program that would help ease the burden on the country’s overcrowded prisons by creating alternatives to jail.

The U.N. and rights groups alike have long been urging the government to cut back its use of detention until trial for those facing charges, a practice rights groups have also accused the ruling CPP of using to punish its critics in cases often seen as politically motivated. They also blame the practice for filling Cambodia’s jails with thousands of people more than they were designed for, which they blame in turn for many of the health problems inmates face.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana appears at the National Assembly in June. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said Rhona Smith, the U.N. envoy, proposed the pilot at a meeting with Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana on Thursday morning.

“She recommended that we do a pilot program and that first we must educate the public. We choose Battambang province for the pilot program for community punishment,” Mr. Malin said. “The U.N. will support the education program.”

The spokesman said the basic idea was to allow certain criminals to serve their sentences with some sort of community service.

“We will identify the type of offense and the characteristics of the offender,” he said. “If they are cruel and we let them into the community, it would be chaos.”

But for the right candidates, he added, “if he works in the community it can help the community. The idea is to reduce inmate overcrowding and let them use their skills.”

Mr. Malin said the ministry was still studying the feasibility of such a pilot program and was also working with the U.N. on drawing up stricter criteria for the use of provisional detention.

Neither Ms. Smith nor the local U.N. human rights office responded to a request for comment on the plans.

While leaving her meeting with the justice minister in the morning, however, Ms. Smith said they discussed provisional detention and “alternatives to custodial sentences.”

Cambodia currently has about 25,000 inmates spread across 27 jails, according to the Interior Ministry’s prisons department. Cambodia’s latest crackdown on drug offenders has netted more than 9,000 people since January alone.

In June, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Chak Sopheap, said her NGO had received numerous reports that the sudden influx of inmates was making health conditions noticeably worse in the prisons. She said the crackdown had “pushed an already overstretched prison system to the point of collapse.”

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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