Thursday, 3 July 2008

Cambodian Government Operating Khmer Rouge-Like Detention Camps in Phnom Penh, Housing Homeless, Beggars and Sex Workers

The front gates of the Koh Kor Center

Women and children locked in a detention room in the Koh Kor Center

" The government needs to find real solutions to the economic and social problems which cause people to live and work on the streets - it cannot simply round these people up and throw them into detention camps. It is not a crime to be poor, and the government should stop treating people as though it is. LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge "
Published on July 2, 2008

In a bid to clean up the streets of Phnom Penh, the government has been removing the homeless, beggars and sex workers and dumping them in two detention centers supposedly for rehabilitation and education. The reality however is that these people are being unlawfully detained and forced to live in appalling conditions where meals consist of a small plastic bag of rice and bucket in the middle of the room serves as a communal toilet.

Arbitrary arrests
Authorities conducting regular nighttime sweeps of public areas in Phnom Penh particularly around Wat Phnom, Phsar Chas and other areas of Daun Penh district have arbitrarily arrested numerous sex workers, homeless people and beggars. Such sweeps have occurred for years in Phnom Penh but appear to have increased in 2008. These operations are usually conducted by district officials, district police officers, district security guards and public park guards, and/or Municipal Social Affairs Department staff. According to victims and witnesses, sex workers are rounded up and forced – often with violence or threats – into trucks to be taken away to be detained.

It appears that many of these arrests are unlawful. Non-police personnel, such as district security guards and Municipal Social Affairs Department staff, have often conducted arrests although they have no legal powers to do so. Even if conducted by police, the arrests appear to be completely arbitrary and not based on any investigation of alleged crimes.

Unlawful Detention
After arrest, persons are typically taken to the district office or district police station where they are detained. They are not charged with any crime. Some are released after money is extorted from them. They are all vulnerable to sexual or physical abuses or other mistreatment, including theft of their property. They are then usually transferred to an "education" or "rehabilitation" center run by the Phnom Penh Municipal Social Affairs Department.

Detention Centers
The first center is in Prey Speu village, Chom Chao commune, Dangkor district of Phnom Penh and is known as the "Prey Speu" or "Chom Chao" center. The second one, called Koh Kor or Koh Rumdoul, is on an island in Kandal's Saang province.

Officially, the centers exist to provide rehabilitation services to homeless persons and other poor persons who voluntarily agree to stay at them. In reality, according to LICADHO investigations, they have been used for the systematic unlawful detention of sex workers, homeless people, beggars and others arbitrarily arrested on Phnom Penh streets. Abuses against detainees by guards and abominable living conditions have been reported at the centers.

All these detentions are unlawful. There is no legal basis for the short or long-term detention of individuals who have not been charged, convicted or sentenced for committing any crime.

According to female sex workers and a male homeless individual detained at Prey Speu or Koh Kor centers in 2008 and interviewed by LICADHO, detainees suffer from physical and sexual abuse. They are beaten and some women are being raped. One woman recounted being locked in a dark room at Prey Speu with about 50 people, including children. Another said she was locked in a room at Prey Speu with so many people it was difficult to find a place to sleep, and allowed outside only two times a day briefly. .

LICADHO Visit to Koh Kor Center
On June 17, 2008, LICADHO staff paid an impromptu visit to the Koh Kor island Center in the Bassac River, in Saang district of Kandal. The center, built on the site of a former Khmer Rouge prison during the Pol Pot regime, is accessible only by boat.

Inside, LICADHO found more than 20 men, women and children locked in a detention room together. These detainees included a nine-month pregnant woman and her 4-year-son; two gravely-ill people, an elderly woman named who lay comatose on the floor and who died on June 19th, as well as a middle-aged man, reportedly sick with HIV-AIDS, who lay on the floor, unable to sit up or walk, suffering from diarrhea and other symptoms; a 9-year-old girl with epilepsy who was unable to receive her usual medicine because of her detention; and various other adult men and women, some of whom appeared disoriented or suffering from mental problems and were unable to explain how long they had been detained.

Within 48 hours of the elderly woman's death, another person reportedly died at Koh Kor – a young man who disappeared, believed to have drowned, while attempting to swim across the river after escaping from a detention room on the night of June 20. There are also accounts of deaths at the Prey Speu center, where at least two people have reportedly died in 2008 although details of these deaths are unclear.

Extremely poor conditions - including lack of adequate food, clean drinking water and medical care - as well as violence by guards have been reported at both centers, but particularly at Prey Speu. Former detainees said they had to use a bucket or barrel in the middle of the room as a toilet.

LICADHO was able to negotiate with the center's director for the release, on medical grounds, of the 9-month-pregnant woman (along with her 4-year-old son), and the middle-aged man reportedly suffering from HIV-AIDS.

On June 24, after LICADHO sent the government photographs of men, women and children locked behind bars at Koh Kor, nearly all the detainees there were abruptly released. Loaded onto trucks, most of them were driven to Phnom Penh and dumped on roadsides - a reverse of how they were arrested in the first place. However, Koh Kor has not been closed and five people, who reportedly suffer from mental problems, continue to stay there.

In addition, the Prey Speu center remains operating, with an unknown number of people there.LICADHO is deeply concerned by these recent events that are gross violations of the human rights of innocent Cambodian citizens. LICADHO urges the government and civil society organizations to take the following actions to put an end to these abuses:

Immediately order a halt to the nighttime sweeps of Phnom Penh streets and parks which are being conducted to arrest sex workers and others.

• Immediately close the Prey Speu and Koh Kor centers, and all other Social Affairs centers, pending a review of their purpose and management and an investigation into abuses committed at them. Ensure the immediate release of all detainees being held at Koh Kor, Prey Speu or any other Social Affairs Center, and permit NGOs to provide assistance to these people.

• Issue instructions to all relevant authorities that any sex workers or other vulnerable individuals who are in need of shelter should be sent (voluntarily) to NGO-run centers only, and not to Social Affairs centers.

• Ensure that anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts are focused on the investigation and prosecution of traffickers, rather than the arrest and detention of sex workers.

• Ensure that all anti-trafficking law enforcement operations are conducted only by specialist police units (with officers trained in dealing with sex workers and victims of sexual abuse and exploitation), and not by district police or other units.

• Issue instructions that non-police personnel, including district security guards and Social Affairs staff, must not conduct arrests of anyone at any time; in addition, instruct that district security guards in all areas of Phnom Penh should in no way have any official role in dealing with sex workers, homeless people or other individuals on the streets.

• Ensure the disciplining and prosecution of any police or other government personnel who unlawfully arrest, detain or commit other crimes against sex workers or others.

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