Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday told Phnom Penh authorities and the Ministry of Social Affairs to either improve the city’s notorious Prey Speu detention center or shut it down in order to spare his government more embarrassment.
The facility, officially rebranded as the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Center in March, has become infamous over the years for rounding up vagrants, addicts and prostitutes by force and holding them indefinitely in poor conditions. Rights groups have accused staff of beating and raping detainees with impunity and have repeatedly urged the government to shut it down.
At a ceremony in Phnom Penh on Tuesday marking International Child Protection Day, which officially falls on Tuesday, the prime minister said the ministry and municipality should follow the critics’ advice if they cannot fix the center’s problems.
“If it needs to be closed, there’s no need to keep it open because it has caused a lot of trouble. If it needs to continue, it must be improved,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen sounded more concerned about his government’s reputation than the fate of the center’s detainees, however.
“We are trying to provide services to ensure human rights, but instead this center has been criticized and the government’s efforts are muddied because of it,” he said. “If we cannot manage such a small center, how can we do anything?”
The facility on Phnom Penh’s outskirts was officially called a vocational training center for years, despite the obvious absence of any such training. When administrators did acknowledge shortcomings, they always blamed a lack of funding and staff.
Rights groups, however, have said people who passed through the center often spoke of willful abuse, on top of neglect and poor management.
In October, a detainee drowned in a shallow pond on the center’s grounds, according to rights group Licadho. The group also accused Prey Speu of mismanagement after a homeless man in the center’s care died of an illness in 2014. The Phnom Penh hospital where the center claimed the man was sent for treatment told reporters it had no record of him.
Contacted on Tuesday after the prime minister’s speech, Prey Speu director Ban Vutha said he was preparing a report about the issues raised by Mr. Hun Sen but declined to elaborate. Mr. Vutha said he did not know whether the facility would stay open.
“This decision is up to the ministry and the municipality,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Chin Bunthoeun said officials were still deciding which of the prime minister’s options to take. A spokesman for the Social Affairs Ministry could not be reached.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, said on Tuesday was the first time he could recall the prime minister addressing Prey Speu’s troubles in public. He hoped the attention would either get the center the resources and monitoring to care for its charges properly or lead to its shutdown.
“This place has become an illegal detention center where people have been tortured and raped,” he said. “So I support Prime Minister Hun Sen’s remark that the center should be closed if it cannot be improved.”