State security guards detained 52 people they claimed were homeless, including alleged sex workers, beggars and drug addicts, in central Phnom Penh early on Thursday morning, hours before the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Kim Vutha, chief of the Daun Penh district security guards, said about 20 of his officers swept through Wat Botum, Wat Phnom and a park and construction site across from NagaWorld casino, formerly occupied by Dreamland amusement park.
“At 4 a.m., we started rounding up and detaining the 52 homeless people,” he said. “We took action in the early morning because it’s quiet and there’s no traffic jams, so it doesn’t disturb people traveling along the street.”
Mr. Vutha described the roundups as routine, though he acknowledged that Mr. Xi’s visit had played a role in the timing of Thursday’s detentions. “We never let the homeless stay out too long,” he said.
The 18 women, including six suspected sex workers, and 34 men were sent to Phnom Penh’s social affairs department for questioning to determine whether they would be detained at the Prey Speu social affairs center, ostensibly for rehabilitation, or back to their provincial hometowns, Mr. Vutha said.
“I see almost the same 52 people return home for about 10 days then come out again,” despite assurances from their relatives that they would stay put, he said.
Sorn Sophal, director of the municipal social affairs department, said authorities were still questioning those they rounded up.
“Most of them want to return home to the provinces,” he said, adding that those with drug addictions often wound up back on the capital’s streets. “It’s hard to educate them if they are drug addicts.”
Rights groups have repeatedly criticized the government’s poor treatment of vagrants, addicts and prostitutes, who are often held indefinitely at Prey Speu.
Detainees say they have been beaten and raped at the facility, which Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities in May to either reform or shut down.