SAMRONG DISTRICT, TAKEO PROVINCE — In Srechey village, about 50 km southwest of Phnom Penh, a group of men dismantled a temporary funeral hall that a day earlier had been used to mark seven days since the death of opposition activist Yea Thong.
Nearby, Thong’s wife, Pol Romduol, repeated an accusation that her husband had died because his prison officers denied him proper medical treatment, forcing him to live with lung cancer that went undiagnosed through his incarceration. She said the officers had discriminated against him by refusing to allow hospital checkups outside the detention center, a benefit she said was given to other, nonpolitical prisoners.
Thong had spent three years in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center I—part of Cambodia’s largest prison complex, Prey Sar—after being arrested in 2015 for his involvement in a July 2014 anti-government protest that turned violent and left at least 39 security guards and six protesters injured. Thong, who was an activist for the now-dissolved opposition CNRP, testified in court that he was not involved in the violence, but was nevertheless found guilty of “joining an insurrection.”
After serving three years of his seven-year sentence, he was released on Aug. 28 last year alongside 10 other political prisoners, amid what was interpreted by some political observers as a post-elections loosening of pressure against the defeated opposition.
On Feb. 14, less than six months after his release, Thong died at the age of 45 after being diagnosed with cancer.
“When he was in prison for three years, I raised all three children alone. I had no money,” his 40-year-old widow told VOD.
“I had hoped that we would have happiness when he came back.”
Romduol said her husband had never been seriously sick before his incarceration, but his health immediately deteriorated after arriving at Prey Sar.
“Previously, he was in good health. He liked exercise, and liked playing sport. He had never fallen ill. He did not smoke and he did not drink,” she said.
Upon his arrest, Thong was detained by police for a night and sent to Prey Sar the next day, she said.
“I went to visit him and he came out with swollen legs. He said it was so painful in his legs and [the pain] lasted for a long time,” she said. “We didn’t receive proper treatment. They just provided pain relief medicine but did not take him to get a scan.”
Later, the pain spread to Thong’s hips and abdomen, she said.
Romduol said that every time her husband was in serious pain, he would make a request to his prison officers for treatment at a hospital outside the detention center, but it was never allowed.
“He requested checkups for his legs and waist at the Russian Hospital because he was in so much pain. When families visited him, he could not walk. But the prison did not allow him to get checked,” she said.
Romduol said she believed that if the prison had allowed her husband to be treated at a hospital, he would not have fallen ill and died.
“When we get sick, we have to be examined. We need to have a clear checkup before we can be supplied the right medicines,” she said.
Romduol said doctors in Thailand examined her husband soon after his release and discovered that he had lung cancer. It had spread to his hips, causing the pain he had complained about, she said.
Romduol accused the prison of denying her husband treatment because he was a political prisoner.
“It is an extreme injustice to them as activists because for other prisoners who are robbers, the prison will allow them to get outside treatment, [but] for his group who are political prisoners, particularly my husband who asked them, they were never allowed. It is an extreme injustice to him,” she said.
A spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Prisons, Nuth Savna, denied any discrimination, saying it was up to prison doctors to determine whether inmates needed outside treatment on a case-by-case, medical basis.
“The request for outside treatment, all over the country, has several manifestations. Some people are actually sick, but some ask in order to go abroad. So it is based on the diagnosis from doctors in prison,” Savna said.
“They are the one who make a diagnosis and they make the request. For the case of Yea Thong, there needs to be a thorough investigation, so we can determine the cause of his death. What was the cause? When she puts the blame entirely on the prison, I won’t accept that,” he added.
Thong’s defense lawyer, Meng Sopheary, said she had filed a court request for her client to receive outside treatment, but was denied.
The investigating judge had cited “a report from the head of Correctional Center I that said that after Mr. Yea Thong was sent to Correctional Center I, the center’s doctors paid attention [to his case] and treated [him] until Mr. Yea Thong got better from his illness, so there was no need to allow the accused to get treatment at hospital,” Sopheary said.
If Thong was in fact seriously ill while in prison, the case would amount to a rights violation, said Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho.
“This is the principle because even if he is a prisoner or a detainee, he still has the right to health care,” Sam Ath said.
“If one has a serious illness and the family and patient ask for treatment at public hospital outside but is not allowed, that is a serious violation of freedoms and it can be an offense that needs to be thoroughly investigated and searched if it is the case,” he said.
But even if there was no discrimination, Thong’s death underscores long-standing concerns around the overcrowding of Cambodia’s prisons.
At a governmental annual review in February, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said there were currently more than 30,000 detainees in prison. The number has steadily risen in recent years, he has previously said; Prey Sar now reportedly houses about 7,000 prisoners despite being built to hold only 2,000.
Thong’s widow appealed to the country’s prisons and courts to allow all prisoners to receive equal medical treatment without discrimination based on their political views.
“I would like to request to the prison not to have discrimination against this party or that party. When a prisoner gets sick, it needs to send them to hospital on time like other prisoners. Both political prisoners and robbery-related prisoners have the same rights. Don’t be sensitive,” Romduol said.