UPDATED 6:40 p.m. — A 5-month-old child who lived with her incarcerated mother in a Phnom Penh prison died while under the care of state institutions, human rights group Licadho said, following renewed calls by Prime Minister Hun Sen to hasten trial proceedings for women in detention.
The infant died at Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital on January 26 of pneumonia and severe malnutrition, Licadho said in a statement on Tuesday, citing an autopsy.
Staff at the public hospital had earlier said they didn’t have the skills to treat the young girl, the rights group said.
The mother, whose name and contact information was withheld by Licadho to protect her privacy, was arrested in the middle of last year for possessing a bag of methamphetamine worth 10,000 riel ($2.50).
She was eight months pregnant when she was provisionally detained in Correctional Center 2 (CC2) at Prey Sar prison, which is currently holding 1,850 detainees — more than five times its official capacity, according to Licadho.
About a week before she died, the 5-month-old girl sustained an injury that caused a thigh bone fracture, although the rights group said it was unclear how the girl was injured.
CC2 medical staff sent the child and her mother to Khmer-Soviet following the injury. Hospital staff identified the fracture through an x-ray, but then transferred her to the National Pediatric Hospital because they said they didn’t have the expertise to treat such a young child, according to Licado.
Dr. Sourn Samith, chief of the emergency rescue unit at Khmer-Soviet hospital, said he could not comment on the child’s death without knowing her name. However, he said that the hospital generally will treat young children who come to their emergency room with first response care, but they will transfer them to a children’s hospital for more complicated procedures.
“For operations, we don’t accept young children because the operation machines are not adapted to serve children,” he told VOD on Tuesday.
The National Pediatric Hospital initially treated the girl, but did not keep her overnight for observation as CC2 staff asked, according to Licadho. The child was then discharged back to the prison.
During the following week, the baby had a fever and regular cough, and prison staff brought her and her mother back to the children’s hospital.
A doctor saw them briefly before scheduling a follow-up appointment for three weeks later, Licadho said.
The mother had told the doctor that she’d run out of medicine that had been prescribed earlier for the girl, but the doctor did not provide additional medication, the rights group said, adding that it wasn’t clear what type of medicine the girl had been given.
Days later, on January 25, the baby was “struggling to breathe,” according to Licadho.
The mother notified prison guards, and CC2 medical staff transferred her to Khmer-Soviet hospital, where staff cleared and then x-rayed the baby’s lungs. Both the child and mother stayed overnight at the hospital, Licadho said.
By the next morning, with the girl now “fighting to breathe,” an emergency room doctor attempted to remove mucus from her lungs and performed CPR.
But the child remained unconscious. She died 30 minutes after being placed in an incubator and given oxygen, according to Licadho.
Nhib Angkearbos, director of the National Pediatric Hospital, said he was not aware of the child’s death. Angkearbos said the hospital occasionally treats children from CC2 for illnesses for free, though he did not provide details. He also noted that the hospital’s 400 beds are generally completely occupied.
Khlot Dara, director of CC2, and Heng Samnang, CC2 deputy chief of operations, both could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. Nuth Savna, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s general department of prisons, also could not be reached.
Be Tea Leng, deputy general director for the prisons department, said that he had also not heard about the baby’s death.
However, he said that if a child living in CC2 becomes unwell, they will first be treated by prison staff and then transferred to a hospital that has a standing agreement with the prison, which includes Khmer-Soviet. They will also send children to hospitals such as the National Pediatric Hospital that provide free treatment.
“[Babies] are not guilty so they have enough rights to get treatment from any hospital,” Tea Leng told VOD.
Article 41 of Cambodia’s Law on Prisons states that children under the age of 3 can stay with their mother while she is imprisoned, and they will be provided with food, clothing and health care.
Tea Leng said that women prisoners receive 3,500 riel worth of food per day, while children under 3 years old are provided food valued at 1,750 riel per day.
Of the 1,846 prisoners at CC2, the only prison in Cambodia designated for women and children detainees, Tea Leng said that 1,126 are adult women, while the remaining 720 are minor detainees.
Licadho found that 103 children were living with their mothers and 43 pregnant women were detained inside the 18 prisons monitored by the rights organization.
Speaking to the Cambodian National Council for Women on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the Justice Ministry to speed up pre-trial detention proceedings for women. Noting that there were more than 20,000 women’s cases awaiting trial, he told the ministry to “rent hotel rooms” if they did not have enough courtrooms to process the cases.
Prisons officials last month said male pre-trial detainees would be sent to the new PJ prison in an effort to reduce overcrowding in Prey Sar’s Correctional Center 1, which holds 9,163 male prisoners, according to Tea Leng.
Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said that despite Hun Sen’s orders, Prey Sar’s facilities for men and women were both far overcapacity.
A “root cause” of the girl’s death at the hospital was that CC2 was “built to house just 350 people,” Pilorge said in a message.
“Today, there are more than 1,800 men, women and children crammed into that space, most of whom haven’t even gone to trial,” she said.
CC2 staff should have taken the child to the National Pediatric Hospital after she had trouble breathing for the second time, according to Pilorge.
The child’s death, she added, was a result of a wider trend in the justice system of arresting and detaining nonviolent offenders on drug charges.
“Pregnant women and women with young children, especially women accused of nonviolent crimes, need to be released on bail urgently to make sure no tragedy like this ever happens again,” she said.
UPDATED 6:40 p.m – The governmental Cambodia Human Rights Committee (CHRC) on Wednesday said it planned to help the 5-month-old child’s mother to secure bail, stating that the committee would provide her with a pro bono lawyer.
“CHRC found that the detained woman has not received enough information about her legal defense rights and was without a defense lawyer,” the statement said.
The committee said that after it had conducted interviews with the mother, the director of CC2 prison, health officials and witnesses, CHRC determined that the prison had acted appropriately, but the girl’s health condition was too serious for her to be saved.
Correction: The headline of this article originally stated that a child who died while under the state’s care was born in a prison. In fact, the child was born in a hospital. The headline has been corrected.