Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Family of Detainee Blinded by Prison Officer Demands Justice

The victim’s right eyeball has been removed after he was struck by a prison officer. (Um Sam An’s Facebook)
The victim’s right eyeball has been removed after he was struck by a prison officer. (Um Sam An’s Facebook)

The family of a man blinded by a prison officer continues to call for justice after the story went viral on social media in April, as they struggle to find treatment and pay their mounting medical bills. 

The blinded victim, 29-year-old Sot Manet, was an inmate at the Tbong Khmum provincial prison and had his right eyeball removed after it became infected following a beating for making noise past the by the officer on February 9. His other eye has also been affected and Manet’s vision remains blurred, his father Sok Sothea said. 

The prison system waited more than two months before seeking proper medical treatment and informing the family, Sothea said.

“It is a wrongdoing, they should have advised him, not hit him brutally like that,” Sothea said. “I pity my son so much.”

The incident came to public attention on April 26 following a viral Facebook post.

Manet had been detained since 2020, serving out a three year prison sentence for a minor drug offense in Phnom Penh. He was only a few months away from his release, Sothea said.

Sothea said his son told him that the night before the beating, inmates had been shouting loudly, banging tables and drinking coffee until midnight to celebrate the planned release of a fellow prisoner. A prison officer had warned them to stop because they were disturbing others but the detainees did not listen.

The next morning, the prison officer hit each of the previous night’s 10 revelers. Manet was the last to be hit and was struck in the right eye with a metal object which may have been a handcuff or rod, and hit several more times before falling to the ground and became unconscious for several hours.

The prison did not inform the family until Manet’s condition had worsened.

“They kept him at the prison hospital and treated him neglectfully there,” Sothea said. “They did not inform us, his parents, until he hurt too much. When I saw my son, I asked them why my son’s eyes are like this? The prison officer said it’s the prison’s rules.”

While at first Manet was too afraid to tell his father what happened, Sothea said he eventually learned from his son that the prison officer responsible for the beating was named Son Tola. 

Tola could not be reached for comment. The provincial prison director general Kae Bunhou did not respond to requests for comment.

“After the incident happened, the prison hospital treated him as considering that his condition was not serious, just a bruise,” Sothea said. “And of course they didn’t inform the family until his condition was out of control.”

He was then sent to Takeo provincial hospital on April 18, but doctors declined to undertake an eye operation because the eye infection had become incurable and sent him to Kampong Cham hospital. Manet was then sent to Khmer-Soviet hospital in Phnom Penh, where his eyeball was removed due to the severity of the infection. Then, after one week, he was sent back to his family’s hometown of Kampong Cham provincial hospital for daily treatment, Sothea said.

“Going to receive medical operation in Thailand might pull him through”, one doctor said, according to Sothea.

The family has taken out a $3,500 microfinance loan to repay that $6,000 treatment costs. Sothea said the family will send their son to Thailand for further treatment as soon as he is released from Khmer-Soviet hospital.

“No one else has helped to pay his treatment fees,” his father said.

Human rights NGO representatives from Licadho and Adhoc both said that the case was in violation of Cambodian law and should be considered an act of torture. 

They added that Manet should have been transferred to a better hospital for appropriate treatment immediately after the incident.

“From my perspective authorities, especially the Ministry of Interior, should assign a commission to investigate this case,” said Leng Senghan, Adhoc provincial monitor. 

“The most important thing is that we urge all relevant authorities to take immediate action, seeking justice for the victim,” said Licadho operations director Am Sam Ath.

Cambodia has passed legislation to improve transparency in prisons, Sam Ath noted. But in August 2022, imprisoned CNRP activists were beaten in the same prison as Manet.

Manet’s brother Sot Sothinak said the family has asked a civil society organization to observe the case and pursue justice as the family cannot afford to hire a lawyer otherwise.

But Sothea said he did not plan to file a complaint because he was afraid that his son’s incarceration would be extended as punishment.

His son continues to beg to be released from prison so that he can seek better treatment in Thailand, Sothea said.

“When will I be released papa?” Sothea recalls his son asking. 

“I do not know, son,” Sothea tells him. “There is no news.”