Rights group calls on Cambodia to shutter rehab center described as ‘hell on earth’

The call comes after a UN rep met with officials to address ‘gaps’ in the center’s legal status.
By RFA Khmer
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Rights group calls on Cambodia to shutter rehab center described as ‘hell on earth’ The Prey Speu Social Affairs Center in Cambodia, shown Dec. 6, 2022.
Citizen journalist

Cambodia should immediately shutter a state-run rehabilitation center authorities operate as an extrajudicial detention facility, a local rights group said Thursday, citing reports of detainee abuse and deaths amid what have been described as hellish conditions.

Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho, called on Cambodia’s Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation to close the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center outside of the capital Phnom Penh over what he said were years of human rights abuses. Not doing so would risk the country’s image at home and abroad.

“Licadho believes there is no chance that the center can be improved,” he told RFA Khmer. “We continue to urge the government to shut it down because … the longer it remains open, the more detainees will suffer.”

Licadho has documented abuses at the Prey Speu center since its opening in 2004 and has called for its closure since 2008.

In December, the group reported that two people died while being arbitrarily detained there in August after they fell ill and were not provided with medical care. It also said it had found evidence of more than 10 deaths among the center’s more than 400 detainees in July and August.

“While Prey Speu claims to be a vocational training center … it functions as an unlawful detention facility to hide from view Phnom Penh’s most marginalized and at-risk citizens, while denying them their legal rights and basic necessities such as adequate food and medical care,” Licadho said at the time.

“People detained at the center, who are not charged with crimes but are held indefinitely and not allowed to leave, have overwhelmingly been from marginalized groups, including people who were homeless, begging, using drugs and sex workers.”

Licadho’s latest call for the government to close down Prey Speu came after Cambodia’s Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth met on Tuesday with Roueida El Hage, a representative from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to discuss the center.

While the ministry confirmed the meeting in a post to Facebook, no details were provided about the talks. However, the U.N.’s human rights office in Cambodia said in a tweet that Hage and Vong Soth discussed “a cooperation plan to address gaps in [the] legal status” of the center, as well as “conditions at the rehabilitation facility, referral mechanisms, and the residents' right to imminent medical assistance.”

Following the meeting, Ministry of Social Affairs spokesman Touch Channy said the government “is releasing people” from the center and “in the process of shutting it down.” He said residents will be sent to other facilities throughout the country to treat them for mental illness and addiction, and that when everyone has been relocated, the ministry will close the center.

‘Hell on earth’

Speaking to RFA, a former detainee named Chhum Ngann said that the focus of the center “was never to rehabilitate people.” Instead, she said, the center operated as a place to store the mentally ill, disabled and homeless, without providing them any assistance.

“They didn't want foreigners to see the homeless and they often detained people there who weren’t even suffering from any issues,” she said. “That place is like hell on earth.”

Licadho said in December that it spoke with witnesses who described brutal conditions in Prey Speu, including severely overcrowded detention rooms, a lack of food, beatings for not following instructions, and medical care limited to acetaminophen, even for grave illnesses.

The group said that after receiving information about the deaths in July and August, it requested permission from the Phnom Penh Department of Social Affairs in late October to send a medical team to assess and treat the center’s detainees. However, the request went unanswered and access to the center remains restricted.

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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