Smith airs concerns with Sar Kheng

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Sar Kheng greets UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith at the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Heng Chivoan

At a two-hour meeting with Ministry of Interior officials on Wednesday, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith said she had raised various concerns.

These included restrictions on civil society, prison overcrowding and the recent relocation of more than 2,000 Vietnamese families in Kampong Chhnang.

Former opposition leader Kem Sokha was not discussed, Smith told reporters after the meeting.

Smith said: “We discussed many problems, most of them relevant to the Ministry of Interior, including openness for civil society. We discussed overcrowding in prisons, the development of laws on identification and nationality, and the anti-drugs campaign."

“We discussed many problems that the ministry is working on and problems [we] discussed before.​ No, we did not discuss Kem Sokha,” Smith said when asked.

“We were discussing other issues such as problems with pre-trial detention and looking at alternatives to custodial sentencing, and prison overcrowding,” she said.

Smith reiterated: “We discussed a wide range of issues [relating] to the work of the Ministry of Interior, including looking at opening up the civil society space, while also looking at the issues of prison overcrowding, progress on laws on identification and nationality, and looking at the anti-drugs campaign as well.

“So we looked at a wide range of issues regarding the work of the ministry, many of which we previously discussed.”

The ministry’s deputy spokesman Phat Sophanit said prison overcrowding and the relocation of the Vietnamese came as a consequence of other problems, which themselves were being tackled “according to the law” and “without human rights violations”.

He told The Post that Sar Kheng had informed Smith of the government’s move to create a forum with civil society organisations in which to discuss their concerns because, in the past, they had complained of restrictions to their freedom.

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UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith attends a meting the Ministry of Interior on Wednesday. Heng Chivoan

The forum, he said, was aimed at solving such problems and strengthening the partnership between civil society and the government.

“Sar Kheng told Smith that to solve any problem, strengthen the partnership and work together for society, the government created a team to address concerns raised or comments made by civil society organisations relating to the execution of their duties."

“If they have problems, they can raise them or give comments to the team for discussion together,” Sophanit said.

Sophanit said Smith had expressed her appreciation for the Cambodian government’s initiative in strengthening the partnership with civil society organisations and NGOs with the creation of the forum in October.

He said Sar Kheng told Smith that drugs are a pressing issue for Cambodian society. Authorities make arrests, which lead to an increase in prisoner numbers and overcrowding in jails.

However, if the government did not tackle the drug problem, it would escalate and damage society, so it is a huge responsibility for the government.

“[So] to solve prison overcrowding, the government and Ministry of Interior have tried to construct more prison infrastructure in some provinces to share the burden of the prisons in Phnom Penh."

“If a prison is too crowded, we can send prisoners to another facility. [Prime Minister Hun Sen] said we should have a meeting to tackle the issue of the pre-trial detention of some prisoners,” Sophanit said.

On the relocation of the Vietnamese families from the Tonle Sap river, he said Smith expressed worry that it contravened human rights, but Sar Kheng told her it was the responsibility of the authorities to improve sanitation and protect the environment.

If the authorities did not take such action, he said, it would cause “serious” sanitation and environmental problems.

“As for human rights, [Sar Kheng] said what they have done in Kampong Chhnang was practised with high attention to human rights and without any violations or the confiscation of anything."

“Everything followed the law in maintaining order,” Sophanit said.