PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - The Cambodian government is abolishing a controversial "hotel" prison project, according to Ministry of Interior officials.
The government had announced earlier this month that it would soon open the new prison facilities, in which inmates can pay to stay. The facilities are said to be more comfortable than the regular cells at prison Prey Sar, which have been criticized for being severely overcrowded. Interior Minister Sar Kheng had dubbed the new prison complex a "hotel," and at other times Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak called it a "5-star prison." Construction started in 2017 by Kunn Rekon Holdings Co Ltd.
But in a turn of events, Interior Ministry Department of Prisons spokesman Nouth Savna told Voice of America those plans would now be scrapped, pending official notification.
"I think the whole paid idea, the concept ... has been dropped," he said. "But we need to go through a formal process with clearing with the company and informing the government. ... There will be no paid prison."
Savna declined to elaborate further on reasons for canceling the plan, and multiple attempts to reach him later for comment failed.
Change of plans
Earlier, Savna explained that the government was concerned the company, Kunn Rekon Holdings Co. Ltd., would not be able to meet international and national standards for the facility, which was initially designed to hold up to 400 prisoners, and would therefore likely nationalize the prison. Savna said the government might have to pay the company compensation for terminating the contract, as the complex has been built.
A company employee, who declined to be named, said his company was not in a position to comment to journalists as they were under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior.
Asked about the change of plans, the employee said he could not provide further information.
"We haven't gotten any official notification from them, that's all I know," he said.
Criticism of 'two-class' prison
The prison project had drawn criticism for creating a "two-class" system.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said in an email that prisons in Cambodia posed an "acute human rights concern."
"Cambodian prisons are overcrowded to a dangerous degree," she said. A prison in which inmates could pay to stay for more comfort, however, would not be an adequate solution, she said.
"It sends the message that if you commit a crime, your punishment will depend on the amount of money you have at your disposal. As usual, when it comes to access to justice, the poor will suffer the most," she said.
Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, had also expressed concerns about the prison in her 2018 report.
"All detainees should be afforded the same conditions of detention, conditions that meet, and even exceed, the minimum standards specified in the United Nations treaties Cambodia accepts and additional guidelines," she said in her statement.
Tackling prison overcrowding
In an email to VOA, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Simon Walker said that overcrowding could be tackled in various ways. For example, he said his organization had been working with the government on reducing pretrial detention and "promoting alternatives to sentencing" to reduce the number of inmates.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government would take over the facility.
"Please be informed that after debated, the plan has been canceled," he said in a message to VOA. "We drop the plan. No more thinking about that, no more writing about that," he said in a brief follow-up phone call.