Over thirty women and children protesting their forced eviction from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community were pushed, shoved and dragged onto a bus outside City Hall yesterday and taken to the city’s Prey Speu Social Affairs Center, government officials and rights groups said. “The police carried me like a pig and threw me into the bus. Now my body hurts,” said Kim Sakmony, 63, who was reached by phone after she arrived at the center. “They threatened us on the bus that if we don’t stop crying they will hit us.”
More than 300 families watched bulldozers raze their makeshift homes after a violent clash with police last week that left more than 64 people injured.
Most have settled at an ill-equipped relocation site some 45 km from the city. The 30 women and children who had gathered outside City Hall yesterday morning were among the few who had refused the move and continued pressing Phanimex, the private firm that owns the land, to honor a 2003 deal for new housing.
At about 10:30 a.m., security forces pushed and kicked the women as they moved onto Monivong Boulevard with flyers and banners protesting their treatment and demanding that Phanimex honor their deal.
After the women stepped out of the road, the situation appeared to settle down for several hours while police kept an eye on the group. All the while, rumors circulated that a large orange tour bus off to the side was waiting to ferry them off.
Shortly after 3 p.m., the security personnel that had gathered around the group swelled to at least 100, and they began grabbing the women and children and forcing them onto the bus.
Rights groups reported that the group was taken to Prey Speu.
“Now they are still there,” confirmed Sorn Sophal, director of the city’s social affairs department, when contacted at about 7:30 p.m., declining to comment further.
“City Hall officers did it. You can ask them,” Mr. Sophal said.
Phnom Penh deputy governor Pa Socheatvong declined to comment, however, and other city officials could not be reached.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the move.
“This decision to lock away dispossessed Borei Keila residents at Prey Speu is illegal and shocking,” said Naly Pilorge, president of Licadho. “If there needed to be any further proof of Prey Speu’s sole purpose, this is it. Social affairs detention centers are essentially a place of extrajudicial detention which the authorities use to put away the citizens it classifies as undesirable.
“The goal is likely to get these people out of the way so that the controversy dies down. But this may in fact do the opposite. We call for the authorities to immediately release the Borei Keila residents imprisoned at Prey Speu.”
Rights groups have long accused the government of illegally detaining people at the center and subjecting them to a litany of abuse there.
“The government’s action is not right,” added Chan Soveth, chief monitor for rights group Adhoc. “They arrested them and sent them to Prey Speu center where the homeless people and the drug users are kept.”
According to a copy of the contract between Phanimex chairwoman Suy Sophan and 12 Borei Keila representatives signed in January 2004 by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema, Phanimex was permitted to develop 4.6 hectares of land so long as it used a little under half of the land to build 10 apartment buildings for the area’s 1,776 poor families.
It stipulated that $7,133,901 would be spent on the buildings, to be constructed over the following 30 months.
But after finishing eight buildings by 2010, the company said it would not build the last two because of financial constraints.
But the deal also orders Phanimex to pay the families 10,000,000 riel, about $2,500, for every month it is late. Counting through December 2011, that adds up to $162,500.
Ms. Sophan declined to speak with a reporter.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said there was no indication the firm had ever paid up.
“Of course they violated the contract,” he said. “If the people understand this, the people can file a complaint.”
Mr. Phearum said his group was in the process of finding lawyers for the families.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)