Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that Cambodia plans to repatriate Lao and Thai prisoners from the Kingdom’s prisons before the traditional Khmer New Year celebrations in April. The humanitarian gesture is intended to strengthen diplomatic ties with the neighbouring nations.

At a joint press conference during his visit to Laos on February 13, Hun Sen said the prisoners would be returned to their mother countries via existing extradition mechanisms.

“I have informed Prime Minister Sonexay Siphandone that there is no need to wait for reciprocity. We will return prisoners convicted in Cambodia back to Laos to mark the Khmer New Year,” he said.

Cambodia, Laos and Thailand will all celebrate the New Year at the same time in April.

Hun Sen said Cambodia will also implement this mechanism with the Thai side so prisoners can return to their homeland. He urged Minister of Justice Koeut Rith to cooperate with Minister of Interior Sar Kheng to start the work as soon as possible.

Nuth Savna, spokesman for the interior ministry’s General Department of Prisons (GDP), said on February 14 that the GDP was preparing documents regarding each Lao detainee. The files would be sent to the justice ministry, who would work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation according to standard procedure.

“There are a total of 75 Lao prisoners being held in Cambodia, 73 of them for drug offences. Just three of them are women,” he noted.

Savna said he did not have data on hand regarding the number of Thai prisoners being held in Cambodia.

“The decision to return foreign prisoners to their home countries, especially ahead of the New Year, is a humanitarian gesture which is driven by compassion for them, most of whom are forgotten. It also speaks to the close friendship and diplomatic ties with the neighbours,” he said.

Justice ministry spokesmen Chin Malin and Kim Santepheap could not be reached for comment on February 14.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group LICADHO, said the three nations have joint extradition treaties regarding the repatriation of prisoners following convictions. In addition to their humanitarian purpose, the treaties are a part of their diplomatic relations.

“I think the repatriations are a good thing and will benefit the prisoners, as well as the prison system,” he said.

Hun Sen was in Laos from February 13-14 at the invitation of his counterpart Sonexay Siphandone, in an official visit aimed at strengthening ties and cooperation between the two countries.