Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Cambodia needs anti-torture commission

April 16, 2008
UPI Asia Online

Column: Rule by Fear

HONG KONG, China - Between 1975 and 1979 the Cambodian people suffered the world's worst torture in recent history. The worst acts of torture were carried out at the notorious Tuol Sleng center in Phnom Penh by the then Khmer Rouge regime. This center has been turned into a genocide museum since the overthrow of that regime in 1979.

Torture did not end with the end of that murderous regime, though it has drastically declined in comparison. It is still perpetrated at police stations, prisons and other detention centers, and the police still show brutality in the eviction of people from their homes and lands, and in banning public demonstrations.

In February 2008, in Koh Kong province, a young fisherman was allegedly beaten and kicked about immediately after his arrest and later on when in police custody, making him lose consciousness on both occasions. Hardly two weeks later, in Kep seaside town, a police officer was arrested and then allegedly shackled day and night for 24 days in a windowless cell at a police discipline unit for allegedly disobeying the order of the country's national police commissioner to cede his land to a senior government minister.

Nevertheless, the Cambodian government has seemed to show its earnestness in combating and preventing torture. In 1992 it became a party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, or CAT. In 2005 it signed the Optional Protocol to this Convention, or OPCAT, hardly three years after this protocol had been adopted. In 2006 it supported the trial, and welcomed the sentencing to 12 years' imprisonment, of six police officers for the torture and murder of a woman in police custody. In 2007 it ratified OPCAT, becoming only the second Asian country to do so and the 34th party to this protocol.

However, Cambodia's earnestness has not been matched by deeds as required by the two related international human rights instruments. It has as yet to enact a law to criminalize torture and lay down a procedure for victims to have their right to freedom from torture adjudicated and promptly redressed, as stipulated in CAT.

Likewise, it has yet to make a declaration recognizing the competence of the U.N. human rights body called the Committee against Torture, created under CAT. With this recognition aggrieved individuals can resort to this committee when domestic institutions fail to adjudicate their rights and award appropriate remedy, which is very much the case in Cambodia.

The Cambodian judiciary and other competent authorities have failed to act, let alone promptly, to address torture cases. In the case of the alleged police torture of the young fisherman mentioned above, the prosecution in Koh Kong province turned down the complaint of torture against the police filed by that young fisherman. He could not get his complaint accepted and acted upon until after the prosecutor had moved to another position and been replaced.

The prosecution in Kampot province accepted the complaint against the alleged police torture and illegal confinement of the police officer in Kep seaside town when it was filed, but it has not been acted upon.

Cambodia has also failed to honor its obligations under OPCAT which prescribes, among other things, that state parties must create a national mechanism to prevent torture within the prescribed 12 month period after they become a party to it. Cambodia became party to OPCAT on March 30, 2007, yet 12 months have already elapsed without it setting up any such mechanism, despite the offer of outside assistance.

According to OPCAT, this anti-torture commission must be an independent body. It must have power of access, without hindrance, to all places where persons deprived of their liberty are detained; the right to meet in privacy any of those persons; authority to make recommendations to protect those persons' fundamental rights including freedom from torture; and its recommendations should be heeded by all authorities responsible for those detention centers where violations of rights have been detected. The body must also have adequate resources to do its work.

The Cambodian government must not delay any longer the creation of such an anti-torture commission as prescribed by OPCAT and its declaration of recognition of the competence of the Committee against Torture under CAT. Cambodia's judicial or other competent authorities should promptly investigate acts of torture or other ill-treatment, adjudicate these acts, punish the perpetrators, award appropriate remedy to their victims, and take appropriate action to prevent the repeat of such acts.

Any further delay and any continued failure to take action to combat and prevent torture will harm the Cambodian government's credibility and cast doubt upon its earnestness in combating torture. It will also raise suspicions that it condones torture and other forms of ill-treatment of a population which has already suffered so much from such atrocities in its recent past.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)

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