Week 5: Prison Story

IBJ made a prison visit to Phnom Penh’s prison after IRCR informed us of a few prisoners needed legal counsel. After conducting this visit and doing investigation afterwards we prepared this story of how we hope to proceed. Hopefully I will be able to update it soon with progress that we have made in getting the children released or inroads into our proving their ages. 

Interview with Chalina

On July 1, 2016, IBJ met with Chanlina, a thirteen year old girl, at Correctional Center 2. Here she resides in a cell with eighty-seven other prisoners and despite her young age, she has currently spent over six months in detention awaiting trial for drug possession.

When asked for her name, Chanlina provided the name of her older twenty-one year old sister. Although this is not her own name, this is the name under which she has been charged and detained. Without a birth certificate to establish her true age, this is the identity by which she continues to be referred to within the prison. Chanlina does not understand why this is happening or how the authorities knew her older sister’s name under which to press charges.

Chanlina describes how six months ago, a police officer approached her while she was with a friend playing in a nearby field. Upon grabbing her wrist, Chanlina explains that the officer proceeded to place a small bag of white powder in her hand before promptly arresting her.  He then proceeded to take her to the police station in handcuffs.

At the station, a statement was drafted and the police officer asked Chanda to sign it.  She refused to sign it because she did not have any drugs. The officer slapped her across the face and threatened her until she signed the statement with her fingerprint. The police officer took her to prison where she has been for over six months waiting for her trial date in late July. She has only seen her mother once since arriving and has not visited with her siblings at all due to the high cost of transportation to the prison for the  family.

Chanlina describes her day. She wakes up in a room with eighty-seven other inmates, a mix room of adult women, including their own children, and other juveniles. She sleeps on a plastic sheet on the ground as there are no mattresses. Chanlina explains she is uncomfortable within the prison and while the prisoners are fed twice each day, once at 10am and again at 2pm, she often does not eat the food as it makes her sick. Without her family’s financial ability to visit or to supplement her dietary requirements, Chanlina remains alone and dependent upon the seemingly inadequate provisions of the prison. While inmates are required to pay for the privilege to shower three times each week, Chanlina explains the guards occasionally permit her to shower despite her inability to pay. There are also no opportunities for her to make money while at prison.

At certain times during the day, the children are allowed out into the yard to ‘play’. Nevertheless, Chanlina explains that without friends in the prison, there is nothing for her to do in the yard. As such, she simply remains within her shared cell refusing to leave during the days. Chanlina is also illiterate and wants to take classes with the prison, however, the registration for the classes continues to be delayed. Chanlina often feels hopeless and her eyes are full of despair when asked what she would like to do when she is older. She says that she “feels as if [she] has no purpose” and cannot imagine a life outside of these walls. Although some of the older women occasionally invite her to spend time with them, she elects instead to remain alone. When asked who takes care of her in the prison, she shrugs and says “no one, I look after myself”.

The IBJ team led by Ouk Vandeth, the attorney representing Chalina, interviewed Chanlina’s mother, Saab. She lives in their one bedroom apartment about thirty minutes outside of Phnom Penh. Saab describes how she adopted Chanlina when she was two years old and living on the streets. Chanlina does not know her real mother or father and does not even know that she was adopted by Saab. This makes matters more difficult since Saab does not have a copy of Chanlina’s birth certificate. Saab is near tears when she describes her frustration with the police and the justice system. Vandeth describes his plan of action which includes writing a letter to the prosecution with signed testimony by her mother attesting to Chanlina’s young age. She asks Vandeth to “find justice for her daughter and please bring her home”.

When IBJ asked Chanlina what she would be doing if not here in prison, she says that she just wants to get out of prison. She would like to go back to school so that she can learn how to read.  As of the 25th of July, Chanlina will have been in prison for 7 months where she continues to sleep alone on little more than a plastic bag spread out on the concrete floor of her crowded cell.

Kiri is 12 years old and is also incarcerated at Correctional Center #2. He spends his day in his cell which he shares with fifty-five other people. He is not receiving any form of education and is only allowed two meals a day and three showers a week. He spends most of his days sitting around without anything to do.

One afternoon, Kiri was riding on a motorbike with his neighbor (older than him) when they were stopped by the police who accused his neighbor of robbery The police arrested his neighbor and Kiri as an accomplice to the robbery.  Kiri claims that his neighbour did not commit a robbery and that in any case, he was not involved with any crime. He has now been in prison for more than seven months while awaiting his trial. Kiri also describes the police’s physical abuse when they punched and hit him during his arrest.  

The police insist that he is fourteen years old, the age required by the law to legally detained a juvenile in Cambodia. Kiri is twelve years old which is a fact confirmed by Kolab, the director of the school that he attended prior to his imprisonment. IBJ met with Kolab during the course of their investigation. She confirmed that Kiri is twelve years old and that she is willing to be a witness at the trial. She said that  cannot wait to “open the door” and welcome him back to school upon his release.Kolab also said that she should will try and get a copy of his birth certificate to prove his age since his parents do not have one. IBJ also spoke with both his mother and his aunt who can testify but the courts generally look more favorably onto testimony from someone unrelated. His mother sounded unsure of what to do for her son and is happy that IBJ has decided to take the case.

IBJ is currently working on preparing his defense by gathering all this evidence to end his pre-trial detention. He will hopefully be released into his parent’s custody until he can stand trial after this evidence is brought to the prosecution and the court.