PHNOM PENH—Authorities in Cambodia are routinely and unlawfully detaining and abusing sex workers, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report Tuesday, citing interviews with more than 90 female and transgender sex workers.
In a 76-page report titled “Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia,” Human Rights Watch said police beat prostitutes with fists, sticks, wooden handles, and electric batons and on occasion rape them in detention.
All of the interviewees reported paying bribes or having money stolen by police officers, the report added, while they were held in dismal conditions.
The Cambodian government began prosecuting a new “Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation” in 2008 after years of U.S. pressure to clamp down on sex trafficking. The new law criminalizes all forms of trafficking, including forced labor.
Authorities have since then conducted brothel raids and street sweeps, but rights groups say that the new law has worsened exploitation, and Human Rights Watch said police have used the law to justify harassing sex workers.
The new law is broad enough that it can be used to criminalize advocacy and outreach activities by sex worker groups and those who support them.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, dismissed the report and warned against “making generalizations,” adding, “Bad people will take advantage of any law.”
Human Rights Watch said it had conducted more than 90 interviews and group discussions with female and transgender sex workers in the capital, Phnom Penh, as well as in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Siem Reap.
“For far too long, police and other authorities have unlawfully locked up sex workers, beaten and sexually abused them, and looted their money and other possessions,” Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch said.
“The Cambodian government should order a prompt and thorough independent investigation into these systematic violations of sex workers’ human rights and shut down the centers where these people have been abused.”
In its latest report on human rights in Cambodia, the U.S. State Department said Cambodia remains “a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for sexual exploitation and labor,” including children.
“While the government arrested and prosecuted traffickers and continued its support for prevention and protection programs through collaboration with foreign and domestic NGOs and international organizations, its anti-trafficking efforts continued to be hampered by corruption and a weak judicial system," the report said.
"Certain observers of trafficking in persons in the country believed that some law enforcement, court officials, and other government officials received bribes that facilitated the sex trade and trafficking in persons.”
In Phnom Penh, people detained in so-called “beautification” street sweeps “typically lost all money and belongings in the course of a sweep; in at least one case, an HIV-positive woman lost her medication and authorities would not provide substitute medicines.”
Original reporting by RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated from the Khmer by Poly Sam. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.