Detention Center Death Prompts Call for Shutdown

Human Rights Watch and local rights group Licadho on Sunday once again urged the government to shut down all of its extrajudicial detention centers following the death of a homeless man at one such center late last month.

In a joint statement, the groups said authorities picked up a man identified only as Phea in a sweep of Phnom Penh’s homeless on November 2 and placed him in the Prey Speu social affairs center in Pur Senchey district, where he died on November 26.

The statement says Prey Speu staff and other witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the case told Licadho investigators that Phea was visibly ill when he arrived, with infected wounds covering his legs and other parts of his body.

The witnesses said he was provided with no treatment on site and was refused care outside the center, it says.

“Keeping Cambodia’s detention centers open is an endless invitation to the authorities to violate the human rights of people deemed undesirable,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said in the statement. “The systematic abuse of Cambodia’s most vulnerable people occurs at these centers and the government should close them immediately.”

Sorn Sophal, who runs the city’s social affairs department, confirmed the recent death of a man named Phea at the center, but said he could not recall the exact date.

Mr. Sophal said Phea was chronically ill when he arrived, but that he did not know the cause of his death. He rejected the accusation that the man was not provided with medical care.

“We sent him to the hospital for treatment, but he died because he was seriously ill,” he said.

Mr. Sophal said the center routinely sends sick detainees to the hospital, and dismissed the rights groups’ call for the facility be shut down.

“It is their opinion, and this [critique] is not the first,” he said.

Neth Sovirak, director of the Phnom Penh Referral Hospital, where Mr. Sophal claims Phea was sent, said too many patients passed through his doors for him to remember each one, and that he could neither confirm nor deny Mr. Sophal’s account.

Licadho says Prey Speu staff told the rights group that Phea never left the facility.

“A center staff told our investigators that they had been ‘too busy’ to deal with Phea’s deteriorating health condition while he was illegally detained,” Ms. Pilorge said in an email. “Based on our investigation, Phea was in need of hospitalization, which he was denied for weeks prior to his death.”

She said Licadho could not ascertain the cause of Phea’s death because his corpse was cremated at a local pagoda soon after his death and an autopsy was never conducted.

Officially, the Prey Speu center is meant to rehabilitate detainees and offer them vocational training. But rights groups say the center does neither, and serves as little more than a holding cell for homeless people, prostitutes and drug users who are often picked up arbitrarily, and illegally, ahead of events expected to bring a large number of foreign tourists or dignitaries to town.

“Cambodian authorities need to admit that it’s impossible to transform Prey Speu and similar centers into institutions that respect human rights,” Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said in Sunday’s statement.

“The latest death at Prey Speu should be the last straw for donors, U.N. agencies and embassies, who should together demand Prey Speu be shuttered,” he added.

Licadho and Human Rights Watch say the government also runs two other similar centers, plus six facilities where drug users are held.

In 2010, after interviewing several former detainees of these “social affairs centers,” including Prey Speu, Human Rights Watch said vicious beatings, gang rape and other sexual abuse by staff were common.

On Sunday, the group’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, said similar accounts have continued to emerge.

“We continue to speak to people who get held in Prey Speu and then escape, and we continue to receive accounts of beatings and other abuses,” Robertson said.

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