July 12, 2022
PHNOM PENH – So Sam Ath stood quickly in his light blue uniform after hearing his name called by the judge in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of Appeal in late June. He had already been sentenced recently in Takeo and this was his appeal hearing, in a desperate bid to get a retrial on drug possession charges or a rehearing for a lighter sentence.
At just 27 years old, Sam Ath had already served time in prison previously. The first time around he was imprisoned for seven years in Takeo province in 2015 on a charge of aggravated intentional violence resulting in the death of the victim.
In response to the judge’s questions, Sam Ath explained that back in early 2014 when he was only 20, he had gotten into an argument with another young man and he hit him on the neck with a wooden pole, intending to harm him – but not to kill him.
One day later he was arrested and placed in the Takeo detention facility and eventually he was sentenced by the Takeo Provincial Court to seven years in prison. The outcome could have been far worse for him.
However, after finishing his sentence mid-way through 2021, Sam Ath was released – but he was free for just three months before getting arrested again, this time for possession of three small packages of methamphetamines.
The Takeo court had sentenced him to three more years in prison.
Unlike some other luckier appellants that day, Sam Ath’s conviction and sentence were upheld by the Court of Appeal and he was ordered to finish the rest of his prison term in Takeo province minus the time he had already spent in detention since his arrest last year.
“I regret my actions and I will stop committing crimes and causing problems in society. When I finish my three-years, I want to be a good person and live in society like a normal citizen,” Sam Ath said to the courtroom at the close of his appeal hearing.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the NGO People’s Centre for Development and Peace, told The Post that the problems with youth gangs had been occurring in Cambodia for a long time – sometimes more and sometimes less. However, he observed that all these youth crime problems happened for identifiable reasons.
The first problem, according to Kim Eng, is the sale and use of illegal drugs.
“When they do drugs, violence is always the result. And when they sell drugs, they form gangs to organise their activities involving the drug trade,” he said.
Kim Eng said the second problem is related to materialism in society and the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. The youths who are poor see selling drugs as a way to get rich or at least earn some money. They also form gangs in order to compete with others and it follows the psychology of power-seeking behaviour by those who have little power in the grand scheme of society.
“I’ve also observed social behaviours online where hostility and abusive language have become the norm for regular internet users and also among some politicians and well-known people and it seems to be teaching young people to adapt to the use of abusive language and violence in other forms.
“These gangs basically are destructive but ultimately ineffective attempts by those who are weak to gain power and become strong and respected in society,” he said.
According to Kim Eng, once they are together in a group they sometimes feel powerful enough to use violence to challenge other groups and compete with each other.
He observed that at root the social problems caused by gangsters were also linked to a lack of communication between parents and schools with the local authorities about what’s happening with their children and in their communities.
“Sometimes the police can only see the problems caused by youths in gangs and can’t come up with any solutions, while schools provide an education in the classroom but don’t provide enough moral education to the young people they are in charge of.
“The parents are often busy trying to earn a living while their children become drug addicts or join gangs. Once that happens, what is the point exactly of all the money they’ve earned? How will it ever lead to happiness?,” asked Kim Eng.
He also pointed to deficiencies in Cambodia’s criminal justice and systems. He said inmates in some countries are given an education and rehabilitated while they are in prison, so they can become productive citizens when they are released back into society.
“In Cambodia, prison is just a punishment for criminals and there are little to no measures taken to educate them and change their mindsets or character.
“Youth gang members who are first-time offenders are put in cells with older thieves, robbers or murderers and it seems like they are just being sent there to learn from those inmates like criminal apprentices or interns. Sometimes those who have already been in prison once or twice are even more vicious than before they did any time,” he noted.
Kim Eng also offered some critiques of prison officials, saying that the prison authorities need to monitor the rate of recidivism, which is the number of people who have been released and how many of them then return to prison.
“Particularly, those who are first time offenders for non-violent offences, such as thieves who are sent to prison. Do they come back a second time or not? There is a UN Convention that provides guidelines for the separation of prisoners.
“For example, an 18-year-old person who has committed a minor offence should be kept in separate part of the prison from hardened criminals who have killed people. Doing this can help because a person who has been imprisoned once or twice – if they still commit the same crimes – sometimes it is because during their imprisonment all they did was learn more criminality from other inmates.
“Right now in Cambodia, such an offender does not have much opportunity to learn positive things in prison. I do not know exactly what educational programmes are available in prisons here, but I can tell you that we probably need more of them,” he said.
However, the General Department of Prisons’ (GDP) spokesman Nouth Savna refuted Kim Eng’s view. He told The Post that vocational training for inmates who have already been convicted allowed them to learn skills such as electrical repairs, air conditioning maintenance and repair, motorcycle repair, automotive painting, sculpting and vegetable farming techniques.
Savna said that currently there are a total of 38,000 inmates held in prisons and correctional centres, with 54 per cent incarcerated for drug-related offences. He said that out of every 100 inmates, there are around 15 who will typically go on to reoffend.
“We are trying to make them change. One definition of the word education is ‘to have an enlightening experience,’ and this is the GDP’s main goal,” he said.