A U.S.-based rights group has called for the immediate closure of Cambodia’s eight drug detention centers, saying they are holding inmates illegally and subjecting them to abuse, including torture, sexual violence, and forced labor.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the call was based on its extensive study of the centers located in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, and Koh Kong provinces, as well as in the capital, Phnom Penh, and based on interviews with 33 former inmates.
It said that along with drug users, authorities had also locked up homeless people in the centers, as well as beggars, street children, sex workers, and people with disabilities.
The centers, which the government claims were built for treating drug dependency, are run by the Cambodian military, gendarmerie, police, Social Affairs Ministry, and municipal authorities, the rights group said.
In a report, entitled “They Treat Us Like Animals,” HRW said many former detainees described being beaten with rubber water hoses and hit with sticks or branches.
The rights group said they also spoke of painful and humiliating punishments, such as being made to crawl over stones or stand in septic water pits. Former female detainees described rape and other sexual abuse by male guards.
The detainees said they were forced to work without pay in the centers—and in some cases, on construction sites—and those who refused were beaten, according to HRW.
“The most difficult thing is the beatings,” according to “Pram,” a man in his 20s who was detained in the Orgkas Khnom center just outside of Phnom Penh for more than three months in 2013.
“They happen every other day,” he told HRW.
Joseph Amon, health and human rights director at HRW, said arbitrary detention, forced labor, and physical and sexual abuse “are carried out with impunity” inside Cambodia’s drug detention centers.
“These centers are ineffective, unjust, and violate human rights. They should be immediately closed and the men, women, and children being held within them released without delay.”
“The only ‘treatment’ people in Cambodia’s drug detention centers receive is being beaten, bruised, and forced to work,” Amon said.
“The government uses these centers as dumping grounds for beggars, sex workers, street children, and other ‘undesirables,’ often in advance of high-profile visits by foreign dignitaries.”
In response to HRW’s report, Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the authorities had heard about problems at the centers but did not elaborate on measures that are being or have been taken.
He stressed that the government is working to eliminate drug use through several programs aimed at curbing addiction.
“We have many more positive results than negative,” the Council of Ministers spokesman told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Cambodia is working to crack down on and eliminate drug use. We have heard [about some of the problems at the centers].”
Interviewees said they saw unaccompanied children as young as six years of age in the detention centers, where they were held in the same rooms as adults and forced to perform exhausting physical exercises and military-like drills, chained, and beaten.
“The government admits that 10 percent of those held in the centers are children under 18,” Amon said.
“Children who use drugs or who live on the streets should be protected from harm, not locked up, beaten, and abused.”
The United Nations and donor agencies have condemned the lack of due process and abusive treatment in centers in Cambodia and the region, while Cambodian government officials have largely downplayed reports of mistreatment as untrue.
Last year, 12 U.N. agencies issued a joint statement on drug detention centers that called on countries with these centers “to close them without delay and to release the individuals detained.”
But HRW said Cambodian authorities have not publicly responded to the call, investigated reports of torture and other abuses occurring in the centers, or prosecuted anyone for alleged criminal offenses.
Since 2010 three drug detention centers have closed, according to HRW, but the men, women, and children detained each year consistently number around 2,200.
HRW said that the Cambodian government has also announced a plan to construct a large national drug treatment center in Preah Sihanouk province and has approached Vietnam to finance the construction.
“Vietnamese drug detention centers hold individuals for longer periods and include forced labor as an official component of drug dependency ‘treatment,’ raising concerns about the possible expanded influence of Vietnam that could come with financial assistance for drug detention center construction in Cambodia,” the rights group said.
HRW called on the Cambodian government to conduct “a thorough and impartial investigation of arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, and forced labor in its drug detention centers,” to release all detainees, and to replace the centers with expanded access to voluntary, community-based drug treatment.
Sou Kimhai, director of local HIV prevention group KHANA’s Banteay Meanchey branch, said that drug users must want to end their addiction voluntarily and condemned the government’s practice of detaining them.
“The government’s program is very dangerous,” he said. “Ending the addiction of drug users is a very difficult process.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.