Sam Ath therefore stood up quickly in his light blue uniform after hearing his name called by the judge of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of Appeal at the end of June. He had already been sentenced recently in Takeo and this was his appeal hearing, in a desperate attempt to get a new trial for drug possession or a rehearing for a lighter sentence.
At only 27 years old, Sam Ath had already served a prison sentence before. The first time, he was imprisoned for seven years in Takeo province in 2015 for aggravated intentional violence resulting in the death of the victim.
In response to questions from the judge, Sam Ath explained that in early 2014, when he was just 20 years old, he argued with another young man and hit him in the neck with a wooden pole. wood, intending to harm him – but not to kill him.
A day later, he was arrested and taken to the Takeo Detention Center and was eventually sentenced by the Takeo Provincial Court to seven years in prison. The result could have been much worse for him.
However, after serving his sentence in mid-2021, Sam Ath was released – but he was only free for three months before being arrested again, this time for possession of three small packs of methamphetamines.
The Takeo court sentenced him to an additional three years in prison.
Unlike other more fortunate appellants that day, Sam Ath’s conviction and sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal and he was ordered to complete the remainder of his prison term in Takeo Province less 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,” said Sam Ath in the courtroom at the end of his appeal hearing.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the NGO People’s Center for Development and Peace, told the Post that problems with youth gangs have been happening in Cambodia for a long time – sometimes more and sometimes less. However, he observed that all of these juvenile delinquency problems occur for identifiable reasons.
The first problem, according to Kim Eng, is the sale and use of illicit drugs.
“When they use drugs, violence is always the result. And when they sell drugs, they form gangs to organize their drug dealing activities,” he said.
Kim Eng said the second problem relates to materialism in society and the wealth gap between rich and poor. Poor young people 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 this follows the psychology of power-seeking behavior of those with little power in the grand scheme of society.
“I have also observed online social behavior where hostility and abusive language have become the norm for regular Internet users and also among some politicians and well-known people and this seems to teach young people to adapt to using abusive language and violence in other forms.
“These gangs are essentially destructive but ultimately ineffective attempts by those who are weak to seize 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 the grassroots level, the social problems caused by gangsters were also linked to a lack of communication between parents and schools with local authorities about what is happening with their children and in their communities.
“Sometimes the police only see the problems caused by young people in gangs and do not provide any solutions, while schools provide education in the classroom but do not provide sufficient moral education to the young people in their care.
“Parents are often busy making a living while their children become drug addicts or join gangs. Once that happens, what exactly is all the money they’ve earned for? How will this one day lead to happiness? asked Kim Eng.
He also highlighted shortcomings in the Cambodian criminal justice and systems. He said prisoners in some countries receive an education and are rehabilitated while in prison, so that they can become productive citizens when they are reintegrated into society.
“In Cambodia, prison is just a punishment for criminals and little or no action is taken to educate them and change their mindset or character.
“Young gang members who are first offenders are put in cells with older robbers, robbers or murderers and it seems they are just sent there to learn from those inmates like apprentice criminals or trainees. Sometimes those who have already been in jail once or twice are even more vicious than before,” he noted.
Kim Eng also criticized the prison authorities, saying that the prison authorities need to monitor the recidivism rate, that is, the number of people who have been released and the number of them who then return to prison.
“In particular, those who are first offenders for non-violent offenses, such as thieves who are sent to prison. Do they come back a second time or not? There is a United Nations convention that provides guidelines for the separation of prisoners.
“For example, an 18-year-old who has committed a minor offense should be held in a separate part of the prison from hardened criminals who have killed people. It can help because a person who has been imprisoned once or twice – if they are still committing the same crimes – it is sometimes because during their imprisonment they have only learned more criminality from other inmates.
“At the moment in Cambodia, such an offender does not have much opportunity to learn positive things in prison. I don’t know exactly what educational programs are available in the prisons here, but I can tell you that we probably need more,” he said.
However, the spokesman for the General Department of Prisons (GDP), Nouth Savna, refuted Kim Eng’s opinion. He told The Post that the vocational training of previously sentenced inmates has given them skills such as electrical repairs, air conditioning maintenance and repair, motorcycle repair, car painting, sculpture and market gardening techniques.
Savna said there are currently a total of 38,000 inmates held in prisons and correctional centers, 54% of whom are incarcerated for drug-related offences. He said that out of 100 inmates, there are about 15 who will usually reoffend.
“We are trying to change them. One of the definitions of the word education is ‘having an enriching experience’, and that is the main goal of the PDG,” he said.