Local rights group Licadho has called for the closure of two Ministry of Social Affairs centers following reports of abuse from sex workers and other vulnerable people being held there.
“There appears to have been a pattern of systematic abuses against sex workers over recent months…including arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention, physical or sexual abuse, and other inhumane treatment,” Licadho President Kek Galabru said in a June 18 letter addressed to Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Ministry of Women’s Affairs Secretary of State You Ay.
Sex workers, homeless people and others have been arrested in “regular nighttime sweeps of public areas in Phnom Penh…. Such sweeps have occurred for years in Phnom Penh, but appear to have increased in 2008,” the letter said.
Conditions are “abusive and inhumane” at Prey Speu detention center in Phnom Penh’s Chom Chao commune and Koh Ko center in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district, where many detainees reported being beaten and raped, the letter states.
Some sex workers appear to have been arrested under Article 24 of the new anti-trafficking law, which prohibits the public solicitation of sex. Licadho, however, said that most arrests are “unlawful” and there is “no legal basis for the short or long-term detention of individuals at the centers who have not been charged, convicted or sentenced for committing any crime.”
“At Prey Speu, buckets in the middle of rooms served as communal toilets; former detainees, including a woman who was locked up with her 4-year-old child, described having to urinate and defecate in a bucket in front of other prisoners,” according to Licadho.
Licadho officials who visited Koh Ko on June 17 reported that more than 20 detainees were locked together in one room, where they “eat, sleep and go to the toilet.” Several, such as an “elderly woman, Un Sopul, who lay comatose on the floor,” were in need of immediate medical attention, Licadho reported.
Un Sopul was “unable to move or to talk, with flies and ants crawling over her face. She reportedly had not eaten for two weeks,” according to Licadho.
Say Siphon, Ministry of Social Affairs secretary of state, declined to comment Tuesday and referred questions to the director of social affairs for Phnom Penh Municipality, Chea San, who could not be reached for comment.
“These two centers have been part of an institutionalized program of arbitrary arrest, unlawful detention and serious abuse…. We urge the government to ensure the permanent closure of both centers and any other center, and also to ensure an immediate halt to the routine round-ups of sex workers, beggars and homeless people from the streets,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge wrote by
e-mail Tuesday evening.
“So far, we have not received any formal response from the government to these concerns,” Pilorge said, though she added that she had become aware Tuesday that Koh Ko center had been closed. Reports of Koh Ko center being closed could not be confirmed Tuesday.
Bith Kimhong, director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department, said Tuesday that closing the centers was beyond his jurisdiction.
Bith Kimhong said he had reviewed Licadho’s letter and found some claims to be “unreasonable.” He declined to elaborate.
“Related to their recommendation for the immediate closure of the Social Affairs centers, it is above my power,” he said by telephone.