Authorities say they are still searching for 18 of 44 men who escaped on Friday from a government-run drug rehabilitation center in Phnom Penh, even as the center’s director denied the escape occurred.
Local police said 44 of the approximately 700 detainees being held at the troubled Orkas Knhom drug rehabilitation center in Sen Sok district carried out a coordinated escape, overcoming security guards, razorwire and concrete fences to flee the facility.
“Those drug addicts escaped twice in a day,” said Nhean Nonn, police chief in Khmuonh commune, where the incident took place.
About 23 detainees took advantage of a lunch break to launch the first escape, Mr. Nonn said.
“At around 10 or 11 a.m, the guard released them from their rooms to eat lunch. Then they ran at and pushed the security guards” and climbed over the facility’s walls, he said. “The fence has barbed wire so I don’t know how they could have climbed over it.”
At about 7:30 p.m. that evening, another 21 detainees managed to crawl through a hole they had made in the building’s tiled ceiling, Mr. Nonn said.
“They tore through the roof by hand and climbed up to it. Then they jumped over the fence because the building is close to the fence,” he explained.
Mr. Nonn said that Orkas Knhom authorities ultimately summoned local police, who sent some 16 officers on a manhunt for the missing men, 18 of whom remained at large as of last night.
“It is not the first time that a drug addict escaped from the center,” he said. “As I understand it, this happened several times already.
“The center requests that we be quiet, so if you want to know details, please ask the center instead,” he added.
Eang Ly, deputy director of Orkas Knhom, which means “my chance,” confirmed the incident but declined to provide details.
“I dare not comment because my boss does not let me say anything,” Mr. Ly said, referring further questions to center director Mom Chandany.
Ms. Chandany outright rejected the police account.
“No one escaped from my center,” she said.
Sorn Sophal, director of Phnom Penh’s social affairs department, said he was not aware of the escape, but that the center housed some 700 detainees.
“It receives drug addicts from several sources, including parents, police, courts or their relatives,” Mr. Sophal said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) Asia division, said it was not surprising that detainees would want to escape from Orkas Knhom.
“Everyone who gets sent to Orkas Knhom wants to escape because it is a center where rights abuses occur with impunity,” he wrote in an email, citing a 2013 HRW report on the center titled “They Treat Us Like Animals.”
“Orkas Knhom has a long history of guards and center staff physically and sexually abusing persons detained there. The primary ‘treatment’ appears to be mandatory exercise and forced labor, with beatings and torture inflicted on those who fail to respond as ordered.”
Mr. Robertson disputed the notion that detainees at the center were drug addicts.
“They are simply poor or homeless persons, disabled individuals, sex workers or other so-called ‘socially undesirable’ persons who are swept up off the streets by the authorities as part of the so-called city beautification campaigns,” he said.
“Those who try to escape and fail to do so are also severely beaten by guards,” he added.
David Harding, an independent drug specialist based in Phnom Penh, said the facility’s lack of follow-up on detainees meant that most who did have a drug problem in the first place often relapse upon release.
“If you stick people in a desert, it’s easy to say they’re not drinking water,” Mr. Harding said. “But put them in an oasis, and they’ll drink the water right up.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)