Cambodia prisons potential COVID-19 epicentres – Rights groups


Cambodia’s General Department of Prisons announced a temporary suspension of visiting rights on March 25, in response to fears of COVID-19 in the country’s correctional facilities.

The department instructed prison chiefs to quarantine all new detainees for 14 days in “spare rooms” before allowing them to come into contact with other inmates, but failed to provide any details about these procedures and arrangements. The only exception is for visitors who obtain medical certificates and undergo temperature checks upon entering prison facilities.

Cambodia’s prisons and detention centres are all well beyond maximum capacity.

The country’s 28 civilian prisons held 23,748 detainees, including 1,614 women, 43 of them pregnant, as of January 2020. The prisons also housed 103 children incarcerated with their mothers, and 542 other children. Out of 8,855 convicted prisoners, 619 were women, 156 were boys and four were girls.

The Cambodian government should take urgent measures to reduce the risk that the country’s severely overcrowded prisons will suffer COVID-19 outbreaks, Human Rights Watch said in a statement Sunday, April 05.

Reducing overcrowding in prisons is important to prevent outbreaks, which would have serious health consequences for prisoners, prison staff, and the broader public. Cambodian authorities should immediately release people who should not be in custody, including pretrial detainees held for minor offenses, and political prisoners. The authorities should consider alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and women who are pregnant or incarcerated with small children, HRW said.

“Cambodia’s seriously overcrowded prisons are COVID-19 disaster zones waiting to happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia should speedily release prisoners at greater risk if infected, as well as those detained for minor offenses, and take urgent steps to ensure prisoners get adequate medical care.”

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) noted there was a “220% rise in the number of pregnant women and young children in prison between January 2017 and August 2018.” Human rights defenders have said that as many as 30 prisoners are held in highly unhygienic conditions in small cells.

Those incarcerated have limited access to water, soap, and hand sanitizer, and are in extremely close contact with other prisoners. Independent prison monitors have repeatedly pointed out the harsh conditions for pregnant women and women with children, who face “severe overcrowding, inadequate food and access to health care, scarce contact with their families, and limited time and space for children to play.”

Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 2 (CC2), the only prison in Cambodia reserved solely for women and children, has an official capacity of 350 inmates. In January, CC2 held 1,850 prisoners. The death in late January of a 5-month-old baby who had fallen gravely sick while imprisoned with her mother at CC2 highlights the urgent need to find alternatives to detention for mothers with children.

The United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and Cambodian human rights groups have repeatedly urged the authorities to use pretrial detention only as a “last resort,” respecting the presumption of innocence.

Human Rights Watch reiterates its call to release all political prisoners, including human rights defenders, members or supporters of the political opposition, and citizens who peacefully exercised their right to free expression.

“The Cambodian government needs to immediately reduce the prison population while undertaking rigorous testing inside prisons to isolate those who are sick,” Robertson said. “Foreign donors should urge the Cambodian government to abide by international guidance and human rights standards, which would be in the best interest not only of prisoners and prison staff, but also the Cambodian people.” (Source: HRW)