A court in Cambodia’s capital has refused to let the mother of an autistic teenager on trial for inciting social unrest and insulting public officials see her child while he is held in prison, the woman and the boy’s attorney said Monday following his court appearance.
Phnom Penh police arrested Kak Sovannchhay, the 16-year-old son of detained former senior opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) member Kak Komphear, at his home on June 24, accusing him of using provocative words and insulting government leaders on social media.
A day later, Kak Sovannchhay was remanded to Prey Sar Prison, the largest of Cambodia’s two dozen jails run by the Ministry of Interior. His father has been serving time in the same prison for more than a year.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court questioned Kak Sovanchhay during a hearing on the charges on Monday, but the teenager’s attorney, Sam Kong, said his client did not understand the questions raised by the investigating judge. He demanded that the court release the boy on bail because he is a minor.
Prum Chantha, the boy’s mother, condemned the court for not allowing her to see her son. She has rejected the charges against both of her husband and son as politically motivated and has demanded their release.
“My son is mentally unstable and a minor, so I should have been allowed to be with him so that he doesn’t panic when asked questions or get intimidated,” she said. “But, here, I knew nothing about my son while he was at the court hearing [today].”
Both Sam Kong and Prum Chantha argue that the boy’s detention is a violation of children’s rights and a form of political persecution.
Prum Chantha said authorities arrested her son while her husband is in prison to demoralize her because she is a member of the “Friday Wives” group of women holds weekly protests demanding the release of their husbands jailed on incitement charges for expressing views critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.
Investigating judge San Bunthoeun had Kak Sovanchhay brought to court Monday for questioning because the boy was not interrogated on the day of his arrest, Sam Kong said.
After the court hearing, authorities took the boy back to Prey Sar Prison and did not allow his mother to talk to him.
Sam Kong said that Kak Sovanchhay could not control his emotions and impulses in court because of his autism and that the line of questioning did not appear to be in accordance with legal procedures because the boy did not understand the questions and did not know how to answer them on account of his age.
“The Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure as well as the Criminal Code and the [U.N.’s] Convention on the Rights of the Child allow the court to consider placing children in the custody of guardians or parents or rehabilitation facilities,” he said. “The laws also allow the court to consider giving children freedom rather than keeping them prison, which affects the future of the children.”
Cambodia ratified the U.S. convention in 1992.
Sam Kong also asked the court to send a medical specialist to see his client.
‘The interests of the child’
Prum Chantha, who said she pitied her son when she saw him from a distance at the court hearing, was later seen running after the police van that transported him back to prison.
“I still ask the court, if the court is independent and does its proper work, to release my son on bail so he can return to his mother’s custody because he has a mental disability, and I want him to go back to school because he is very young,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the human rights monitor Licadho, said he supports the demand for the release of Kak Sovanchhay for the sake of the boy’s future, because he is still in school and needs special care.
“The court should consider carefully this because it deals with the future of the child and his mental health,” he said. “He is still a minor so that his use of words might not be appropriate and thoughtful, plus he has an illness.”
“The judge should include these points in his consideration if he cares for the interests of the child in relation to juvenile justice law,” he said.
More than 80 political, social and environmental activists have been arrested and imprisoned since the end of 2019, most of them on charges of incitement and conspiracy.
National and international organizations, including major democratic countries, have repeatedly condemned the detentions as baseless and politically motivated, and have demanded their immediate release if Cambodia wants to avoid further sanctions by the international community.