Two human rights groups have called on the Cambodian government to immediately close all detention centers that arbitrarily detain people outside the criminal justice system, following the controversial death of a homeless man who had been taken to one such facility.
New York-based Human Rights Watch and Phnom Penh-based Licadho cited the Nov. 26 death of an ill homeless man named Phea, saying he was denied medical treatment in the notorious Po Senchey Vocational Training Center in Prey Speu, outside the capital.
Security forces had picked him up on Nov. 2 during a routine “sweep” of people considered “undesirable” in Phnom Penh to clear the streets for Cambodia’s Water Festival on Nov. 5-7.
The social affairs center, which has come under fire in years past for abusing people detained there, has continued to abuse human rights and leave sick people to die without medication, claimed senior Licadho investigator Am Sam Ath.
“This is a serious human rights violation,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The Prey Speu center was criticized long ago. The detention center detains people illegally because only prisons can detain people.”
Officials at the center and the Ministry of Social Affairs, which oversees the operation of such centers, could not be reached for comment.
“Keeping Cambodia’s detention centers open is an endless invitation to the authorities to violate the human rights of people deemed ‘undesirable,’” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, in a statement. “The systematic abuse of Cambodia’s most vulnerable people occurs at these centers and the government should close them immediately.”
Pa Socheatevong, Phnom Penh’s governor, had ordered local police, public-order contingents and armed gendarmes to conduct the sweeps to also deter anti-government protests during the holiday, the statement said.
Although Phea was extremely thin and covered with infected wounds when he was taken to the Prey Speu center, staff did not provide medical treatment or take him elsewhere for it, the statement said.
After he died, his body was immediately cremated, and police failed to launch a proper investigation into his death, it said.
Other detainees at the Prey Speu facility also live in poor conditions and are being held without charge or trial, the two human rights groups said.
Of the roughly 30 others there at the time of Phea’s death, two were small children with their physically ill mother and a third small child was with her father in violation of international law prohibitions against the arbitrary detention of children, they said.
A late-term pregnant woman and a transgendered person being held at the center managed to escape, according to the statement, quoting an unnamed source.
History of abuses
Abuses at the Prey Speu center include torture, systematic cruel and inhumane treatment, rapes and murders since it opened its doors 10 years ago, the statement claimed.
It is common for authorities around Cambodia to routinely detain alleged drug users, homeless people, “street” children, sex workers and people perceived to have disabilities in detention centers, some of which are for drug treatment, while others are for “social rehabilitation,” it said.
Besides Prey Speu, the Ministry of Social Affairs has authority over the Phnom Bak center in Sisophon town, Banteay Meanchey province, and jointly manages a drug detention center with the military on a military base in Koh Kong town, Koh Kong province, according to the statement.
Human Rights Watch previously has documented how guards and staff used rubber hoses and bamboo sticks to whip and beat detainees at the centers, shock them with electric batons, sexually abuse them, and punish them with harsh physical exercises, it said.
“Cambodian authorities need to admit that it’s impossible to transform Prey Speu and similar centers into institutions that respect human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The latest death at Prey Speu should be the last straw for donors, UN agencies, and embassies, who should together demand Prey Speu be shuttered, and commit to back genuinely voluntary services to assist marginalized Cambodians.”
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.