A group of 17 prisoners convicted of minor crimes have been granted conditional release from incarceration to ease overcrowding at prisons across the country.

Nouth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons (GDP), told The Post on July 27 that the 17 inmates were released pursuant to a ruling by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and in line with the legal framework for the conditional release policy introduced by the Ministry of Justice, which has been available for implementation for several months now as part of a campaign to clear case backlog.

He said the 17 prisoners were released with conditions such as requirements that they reside at a permanent address and guarantees given by their family or other responsible parties.

Relevant information was sent to the local authorities in the areas where they will be residing so that they may keep an eye on the activities of the released prisoners who must also regularly report in-person at the local police station.

Savna said the release was of benefit to society if the prisoners have stable addresses and can find a job or operate a business, and that doing so is necessary to reduce overcrowding and the government's expenditures on prison-related costs.

“We shouldn't be too judgmental. Sometimes the crimes were unintentional or just a small issue or at some point maybe the person ran into some bad luck and ended up making a bad decision and they committed one crime and ended up in prison.

"That's why the government is looking at other ways to handle some cases. If this is successful, this method will continue to be used," he said.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group LICADHO, said on July 27 that a release programme like for minor offenders has been recommended by civil societies organisations for some time now. He suggested that it also include early release for those who have served most of their sentences and an increase use of suspended sentences or serving just half of the sentence with the offender placed on probation.

All of this, he said, would help ease prison overcrowding and enable the released inmates to earn incomes for their family while saving the government money.

“I think this is a good step that the government has started to implement this policy on a trial basis and I hope that it will continue. However, the releases should be done transparently, equally, without discrimination and without corruption,” he said.

Sam Ath said his NGO will also help educate people on this issue so that the public does not discriminate against those who are released early from prison, as well as to promote human rights and civil protections for the community.

Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, speaking in Kandal province on July 23, confirmed that prisoners have been conditionally released to live in the community to ease prison overcrowding.

He said those who received clemency had shown progress towards their rehabilitation while in prison and the release programme was currently just for prisoners with sentences of six months or less.

According to Sar Kheng, once the prisoners are back in the community they have to perform community service and educate themselves to be good citizens and if they continue to commit crimes, then police will arrest them and send them back to prison.

“The [GDP] will keep a close eye on these cases. If the results of this programme are good, then we will continue with it in order to ease the crowding in our prisons. It gives them an opportunity to be reunited with their families, but if they commit other crimes, they will be re-arrested,” he said.

The release of the 17 prisoners is also part of the campaign to resolve the case backlog at the capital and provincial courts. As of July 17 last year, the 395-day campaign to resolve the backlog resulted in a total of 19,430 prisoners released, according to the justice ministry.

Roueida El Hage, country representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia, told The Post that they were pleased this measure has been implemented to address prison overcrowding.

“With reports that some Cambodian prisons are housing populations far in excess of prison capacity, we are pleased to see authorities taking steps to address the issue of chronic overcrowding,” she said.

She added that prison overcrowding may constitute a human rights violation if penitentiary conditions do not comply with the internationally recognised human rights obligations established by treaties and conventions, including those to which Cambodia is a signatory.