Following a blistering indictment of Cambodia’s drug detention centers by a US-based human rights group, local aid agencies appear encouraged by the government’s talk of shutting the facilities down.
According to the UN, the National Authority for Combating Drugs plans on phasing out the centers by 2015 and has asked for help in designing a nationwide program of community-based drug addiction treatment.
The government, however, has sent out mixed signals on its plans for the centers and critics see no effort to reform the current facilities as they exist.
Arbitrary arrests. Bloody beatings. Electric shocks. Rape. The list of abuses reads like some of the worst reports to come out of Abu Ghraib, the notorious US-run prison in Iraq that grabbed international headlines in 2004.
And according to “Skin on the Cable,” released by Human Rights Watch on Monday, it is all standard practice inside Cambodia’s government-run drug detoxification centers.
And while government officials invariably rejected the report, Cambodia’s non-government actors say the information hits the mark.
“Overall…it’s a reasonable reflection of the problems at these centers,” said Graham Shaw, a technical officer for the World Health Organization in Cambodia.
Human Rights Watch based its findings on 11 weeks of investigation in early 2009. Of the 74 confidential sources interviewed, 53 were past or present drug users who had passed through at least one of the 11 centers in the past three years.
“Sadistic violence, experienced as spontaneous and capricious, is integral to the way in which these centers operate,” the report states. “Human Rights Watch found the practice of torture and inhuman treatment to be widely practiced throughout Cambodia’s drug detention centers.”
Whips make a common appearance.
In the report, one 16-year-old former detainee of Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao center, identified only as M’noh, said staff would ask their victims to pick out the wire to be used in their own beatings.
The staff “had three kinds of cable made from peeling off the plastic from an electrical wire,” he said. “One cable was the size of a little finger, one is the size of a thumb and one is the size of a toe. He would ask which you prefer. On each whip the skin would come off and stick on the cable.”
Others reported electrocutions.
“It was the staff” who shocked me, said Thouren, a former detainee of Phnom Penh’s Orgkas Khnom center. “It’s like a burning sensation, real pain. You are shaking. It made me fall down to the ground.”
Along with the beatings, investigators came across repeated reports of sexual abuse.
Many of the sources reported witnessing staff rape detainees. A teenage boy recalled being forced to perform sexual favors for the commander of one center run by the military police.
“If I did not do this he would beat me. The commander asked me to ‘eat ice cream’ [perform oral sex]. I refused and he slapped me,” said Kronmong, 18.
Cambodia’s drug laws place the financial burden of these centers squarely on the government. But for a price, Mr Shaw said, families that can afford it tend to admit drug-addicted relatives to centers run by the military police. Those arrested or picked up by police on their random sweeps-often the poor and homeless-usually end up as wards of the Social Affairs Ministry, he added, while centers run by local municipalities take a mix of both, “so a lot of it comes down to money.”
And outside the government’s official line, there’s little sign that any of it works.
“To my mind, that’s not treatment,” said Anand Chaudhuri, project coordinator for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Cambodia. “These are not treatment centers because they don’t have a health objective. These centers have an incarceration objective.”
Like Human Rights Watch, Mr Shaw said, the UN wants the centers shut down.
“The UN has always had a consistent position that these centers should be shut down,” he said. “But we also accept the pragmatic point that it’s not possible to close these centers down overnight.”
So they are aiming for 2015.
According to both Mr Shaw and Mr Chaudhuri, that is the date NACD Chairman Ke Kim Yan set for shuttering the centers during a Jan 19 meeting.
At that same meeting, Mr Chaudhuri added, Mr Kim Yan also asked the UN to scale up a pilot community-based treatment program it has been running for just over a year now.
“So there are some positive signals from the government,” he said.
Since last January, Mr Chaudhuri said, the $1.14 million pilot program has served some 600 drug addicts in 50 villages across Cambodia. And at the government’s request, he added, the UN is now working on a plan to bring the program to another 300.
“Nobody is incarcerated, nobody is kept away from their families,” he said. “We want to educate the people that they [the drug users] are part of the community and we should help them.”
And while the release of an independent review of the pilot awaits publication, Mr Chaudhuri said the villages have seen few dropouts.
David Harding, training coordinator for children’s rights NGO Friends International and no fan of the government’s drug detention centers, welcomed news of the community initiative.
“Any move toward a community-based approach, which would inevitably be a voluntary program, would be a move in the right direction,” he said.
Not all the government’s statements on its plans appear to match, however.
In 2008, the NACD requested that “any province or city that has yet to establish centers for the treatment of drug users should consider establishing a place to keep” people dependent on drugs.
Next to Mr Kim Yan’s statement on Jan 19, Mr Shaw noted, “that doesn’t quite add up, does it?”
“We’ll be seeking clarification,” he said.
Mr Kim Yan could not be reached for comment.
According to Neak Yuthea, director of the NACD’s department of legislation, education and rehabilitation, the government wants to “reduce” the number of detox centers, not eliminate them.
He said the government also plans on building a “national drug center” in Preah Sihanouk province capable of handling 1,000 people by 2015.
“It will be built with good standards and welfare,” Mr Yuthea said.
“The construction will start this year with funds from the government, Vietnam and generous people.”
Mr Yuthea also cast doubts on the efficacy of a predominantly volunteer-based, community program.
“I think volunteer treatment is not so effective. We urge them to have volunteer treatment, but how many people will volunteer to treat addiction?” he asked.
“We need both voluntary treatment and drug centers to force them to have treatment. We have to have measures to protect other people,” he said.
Mr Harding, of Friends International, said a solution requires more than one approach.
“There isn’t one single approach that works for everyone,” he said. But with enough funding and commitment, he believes a volunteer program could effectively treat most of the Cambodians who need it.
“You can’t force people into treatment at a point then they feel they don’t need it and when they’re not ready,” he said.