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Keeping COVID-19 ‘locked out’: Overcrowding a major concern

Ben Sokhean / Khmer Times Share:
Inmates are taken back to prison from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. KT/Siv Channa

The Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons said yesterday it has been successful in preventing COVID-19 from spreading to inmates, although overcrowding remains a concern.

Speaking during a meeting at the Interior Ministry, GDP director-general General Chan Kimseng said so far, the department has done a good job in preventing any outbreak of the virus among convicts or prisoners at all 28 prisons across the Kingdom.

“Interior Minister Sar Kheng also praised efforts of the prison officials, especially the campaigns to prevent the outbreak of COVID-19 at correctional centres in all provinces,” he said. “Until today, no detainee has been found infected with COVID-19.”

However, Gen Kimseng said prison overcrowding remains a concern and urged prison officials to closely cooperate with all courts, the Ministry of Justice and other relevant institutions to solve the ongoing backlog of court cases.

In May, the Justice Ministry launched a six-month campaign to resolve a backlog of nearly 40,000 court cases across the country, saying cases have been increasing at the municipal and provincial courts over the past few years.

The ministry said although the campaign is promoting a speedy solution for the backlogged cases, it ensures that the work will be carried out justly and without corruption.

At the moment, the campaign is focusing only on criminal cases stuck at courts to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

In an interview with Khmer Times, GDP deputy director-general and spokesman Lieutenant General Nouth Savna yesterday agreed the Justice Ministry’s campaign would help reduce the overcrowding.

He said currently, there are around 40,000 detainees in Cambodian prisons, and only 30 percent of them have final verdicts in the court cases.

“For our department itself, we are expanding the detention buildings, converting workshops to become rooms, as well as constructing new buildings,” he said. “This is what we can do, but it is just a temporary solution.”

“If there is no policy or any specific measure from the Ministry of Justice and courts, then the challenge would be prolonged,” Lt Gen Savna added.

He said based on the United Nations standards, Cambodia should have a maximum of 70,000 square metres of total space to house detainees.

“However, despite trying to expand space, we only have a total of 30,000 square metres, which means our prisons are overcrowded by more than twice the limit,” Lt Gen Savna said.

He said due to serious overcrowding at prisons, the department has also transferred detainees from major prisons, including Correctional Center 1 (CC1), known as Prey Sar prison and Police Judiciare, known as PJ prison, to other correctional centres.

GDP has previously reported that the government’s anti-drug campaign has caused prison overcrowding. It said more than 50 percent of inmates are in prison due to drugs charges.

Lt Gen Savna also said that despite having no reports of COVID-19 in Cambodian prisons, the department should not let its guard down and prevent infection from happening.

“We are concerned that overcrowding detainees poses a risk of cluster infections,” he said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said yesterday that since the campaign was launched, about 3,500 cases, or 25 percent, of the target cases have been cleared.

“We received a positive result from the campaign,” he said. “The challenge was solved as relevant parties, such as the judicial police, court officials, anti-drug police, the Bar Association of Cambodia and the ministry working group, are giving importance to the task and closely cooperating with each other.”

He said the ministry’s campaign would help GDP to solve the overcrowding issue.

“It will help to reduce the issue of overcrowding in prisons. For example, if those detainees have final verdicts, they could have the opportunity to be granted royal pardons or reduction of their prison sentences during national holidays.”

According to a recent ministry report, there are 39,152 criminal cases, including 6,260 drug cases, still stuck in courts. It said 6,693 were stuck with prosecutors, 20,747 with investigating judges and 11,712 with trial judges.

There are 12,651 inmates, including 6,260 arrested for drug abuse in pre-trial detention, it said, adding: “A campaign will be carried out based on the law with integrity and accuracy.”

Justice Minister Keut Rith has said that in Phnom Penh Municipal Court alone there were 12,000 backlog cases, adding that an average of 700 to 900 cases are filed yearly at the court.

 

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