Just weeks after Prime Minister Hun Sen told Phnom Penh authorities to either reform the city’s notorious Prey Speu detention center or shut it down, a teenage boy and a young man were allegedly beaten by guards as they fled the facility over the weekend.
Chak Samnang, 13, and Yem Sok Khim, 22, had been arrested for sleeping in public and were separately brought to the center in Pur Senchey district several months ago, according to Say Chamroeun, a police officer in the district’s Choam Chao commune who later interviewed the pair.
Fed up with meager rations and physical abuse, they escaped through the front gate with 16 other detainees on Sunday morning, Mr. Chamroeun said.
“At the time, some families had gone to visit” relatives inside Prey Speu, he said, explaining that when a guard failed to lock the gate after letting the families in, the detainees pushed past him and darted in different directions.
Samnang and Mr. Sok Khin ran through nearby Prey Kombot village with four or five guards in pursuit, according to a resident of the area who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
“I saw a guard use his wooden bat to hit the legs of the man,” the woman said of Mr. Sok Khin.
She said she also saw a guard pull Samnang’s hair and later noticed a gash on the boy’s head.
When group of villagers intervened and pulled the guards away from the pair, the guards gave up the chase and went back to Prey Speu, she said.
Eight of the escapees remain free, including Samnang and Mr. Sok Khin, according to Mr. Chamroeun, the commune police officer.
He said he had offered to draft an official complaint against the guards, but that the escapees declined the offer and were allowed to walk free when they assured him they had families to go home to.
Ban Vutha, the director of Prey Speu—officially called the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Center—said 10 guards pursued the escapees on Sunday, but inflicted no injuries.
“They just carried wooden bats to scare them and protect themselves in case the detainees fought back,” he said. “They were injured because they ran and crashed into each other, and the boy ran and fell into a canal and hit a glass bottle.”
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said he had heard about the escape, but had received no complaints about the guards’ use of violence, adding that police were still investigating.
District police chief Yim Sarann said a probe was ongoing, but that without a formal complaint, further action was unlikely.
However, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said the detainees’ wounds were reason enough to pursue the investigation.
“If there are claims of beatings of detainees like this, competent authorities should investigate the case,” he said. “It is a serious case, especially if they used violence against a child.”
“I think the situation at the center is still the same as before,” he said. “There have been no reforms to the management system.”
Prey Speu is notorious for rounding up vagrants, drug addicts and prostitutes and holding them indefinitely. Rights groups have accused staff of sexually and physically abusing detainees and have urged the government to shut the center.
During a speech in late May, Mr. Hun Sen said Prey Speu was an embarrassment to the government and should either be shut down or reformed. Two days later, City Hall said the “indispensable” facility would remain open.
Reached on Monday, Social Affairs Ministry spokesman Toch Channy said reforms were ongoing and refused to comment on Sunday’s events.