An activist with Cambodia’s banned opposition party who was released from prison last week after serving his year-long sentence for “incitement” and “cursing public officials” has called on the government to improve conditions in his former jail, saying guards routinely mistreat political prisoners.
Kea Visal, a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who spent 12 months at notorious Prey Sar Prison in the capital Phnom Penh prior to his release on Sept. 18, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he was routinely harassed by guards who stripped him naked on his arrival and placed him in solitary confinement for two weeks, during which they only provided him with gruel to eat.
He compared food at the prison to “pig feed” and suggested that guards there discriminated against political prisoners by denying them rights afforded other inmates, such as using cellphones, as part of a campaign of repression.
“I urge the Minister of Interior to please pay attention to Prey Sar Prison—don’t turn this prison into something like S-21, where political prisoners are harassed,” said Kea Visal, who maintains that he is innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted.
“Please consider political prisoners’ rights and allow them freedoms [afforded to regular inmates].”
S-21, or Tuol Sleng Prison, was run by Khmer Rouge prison chief and executioner Kaing Guek Eav, also known as Duch, who oversaw the deaths, often after brutal torture, of more than 12,272 prisoners held by the communist regime during 1975-79. Duch, who was sentenced in 2012 to life imprisonment by a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal, died earlier this month at the age of 77.
Kea Visal told RFA that during the dry season, guards required prisoners at Prey Sar to pay for water and those who could not afford to do so were unable to bathe for weeks at a time, often resulting in skin diseases. He said prisoners without the means to buy water were not even able to flush their toilets.
While regular prisoners are allowed 30 minutes for visits, political prisoners were given less time and guards would listen in on their conversations.
“They treated political activists worse than other criminals,” he said. “Guards took notes of our every move.”
According to Kea Visal, Chinese prisoners were treated well because they “have money to bribe the guards,” often resulting in extra hours outside of their cells and what amounted to “full freedom in jail.”
Ny Sokha of local rights group Adhoc, who was held in pre-trial detention along with four other members of his group from April 2016 to June 2017 on what he says were politically motivated charges of “bribery,” told RFA that rights abuses against inmates have been occurring at least since the time of his incarceration.
He said Cambodian prisons cannot be classified as “correction centers” because they don’t provide any form of rehabilitation. Instead, prisoners learn about how to commit crimes by sharing their experiences with one another, he said.
As of May this year, around 40,000 prisoners were being detained across Cambodia.
Prison Department Spokesman Nuth Savna told RFA that every prisoner is “treated equally,” regardless of their status or ethnicity, but vowed to have guards “look into the issue.”
He also denied claims that Chinese prisoners get better treatment in jail.
“Chinese prisoners get along with others,” he said, adding that special arrangements in jail are made “for the sake of security.”
“We have internal regulations for implementation. Those who abuse them will be held accountable.”
Kea Visal’s claims come as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Suth Vannak on Monday summoned for questioning Sath Pa, the relative of one of 16 CNRP activists held in detention on charges of “incitement to commit social unrest” and “military insubordination” after they spoke critically of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.
Sath Pa, who was injured by police when they violently dispersed her and other relatives of the jailed activists during a July 31 protest demanding their released, told RFA that Suth Vannak repeatedly questioned her who was responsible for organizing the gathering.
“I said we had no leader—we did it individually and independently,” she said.
“They intended to accuse us of forming a group for the purpose of protesting, but we deny such claims.”
Sath Pha also expressed frustration that the court had ignored a complaint she filed on Aug. 5 against the security forces who injured her left hand during the July protest when they dragged her down the street and threw her into a police vehicle.
RFA was unable to reach the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s spokesperson for comment on the summons.
Adhoc’s Ny Sokha told RFA the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in July was “unlawful” and urged the court to seek justice for both sides.
“The public saw and understood the incident as [violence on peaceful protesters,] so the court should seek justice for the people in order to avoid criticism,” he said.
“This is how the court should build public trust and demonstrate its independence in the case.”
In past years, protesters in Cambodia’s capital—particularly activists demonstrating over land disputes—have been given relatively free rein to air their grievances, in some cases even being permitted to hold gatherings demanding justice outside of the home of Hun Sen.
However, after the CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—and narrowly lost Cambodia’s 2013 general election to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), protesters took to the streets amid allegations of voter fraud, prompting more restrictive regulations in the name of maintaining public order.
The CNRP was disbanded by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
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