VIP prison scrapped amid much criticism

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Prison Department officials and Interior Ministry officials participate in a groundbreaking ceremony to inaugurate a new private wing at Prey Sar prison in May 2017. Hong Menea

The Ministry of Interior announced on Thursday that Cambodia’s first privately run prison, which was to allow prisoners with enough money to upgrade to more comfortable cells, has been scrapped.

Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said studies had found that no other country in the world had constructed such jails.

The $4 million project, a new wing of Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh, began in May 2017 and was close to completion.

Sopheak told The Post on Thursday that the Ministry of Interior has cancelled the VIP prison project after studies in various countries found that nowhere else had such prisons been built.

“We have looked at other countries, and none has built such a prison. So we have decided to abandon the project. No other country has done this, so if we were to, they would use us as an example to follow, and if we were to do it alone, it would be unfeasible.”

However, research by The Post showed that while not widespread, “pay to stay” prison facilities do exist in the US.

Am Sam Ath, the manager of rights group Licadho, said the decision to scrap the VIP prison may have come after widespread criticism of the plan.

“It could cause discrimination between rich and poor inmates. Those who are jailed and have money could stay in the VIP cell, while those with no money would stay in overcrowded ones."

“Cambodia should not have this kind of prison. It would not encourage inmates to stop committing crimes again when they leave. There are many negatives to this idea. Our neighbouring countries do not have such prisons,” he said.

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights had also voiced doubts over the idea, while Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report, VOA said on Thursday.

“All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the UN treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines,” she said in the report.

But Sopheak denied the project was dropped due to criticism. He said the facility would instead house suspects currently awaiting trial in overcrowded cells, AFP reported.

A private company, Kunn Rekon Holdings, had invested in constructing the prison on a 45-year build-operate-transfer agreement that would have seen the government and the firm sharing revenues.

“[We] will discuss transferring capital to the private company that has paid for constructing it so far and pay it back in instalments,” Sopheak said.