Minister Agrees to Improve Conditions at Center

After being quizzed by lawmakers at the National Assembly on Thursday, Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth agreed to increase the daily food budget for detainees at Phnom Penh’s notorious Pur Senchey Vocational Training Center and make other improvements, but mostly steered clear of details.

Mr. Sauth was called before the Assembly’s social affairs commission by its chairwoman, CNRP lawmaker Ke Sovannaroth, following reports of the recent death of a man in the care of the government-run facility, better known as the Prey Speu detention center. Fourteen lawmakers participated in the meeting, including five from the ruling CPP.

Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Emerging from the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Ms. Sovannaroth told reporters that the minister had agreed to raise the amount of money the center budgets to feed each detainee per day, which currently stands at 1,500 riel—less than $0.50.

“The minister said he will change the sub-decree because the sub-decree from 2006 is for 1,500 riel. His Excellency said he will change the sub-decree and raise it to 4,000 riel [about $1],” she said.

The Prey Speu center’s food budget was one of four major problems opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang noted after paying a personal visit to the facility on December 11. The others were poor hygiene, a shortage of staff and the absence of medical personnel.

Ms. Sovannaroth said the minister was also asked to shore up some of these problems.

“We asked His Excellency to improve the Prey Speu center and other centers like it, including the management, treatment of patients, and separating those who are mentally ill, homeless and drug users,” she said.

Mr. Sauth confirmed that he would prepare a sub-decree to raise the food budget for detainees and said he had already begun work on another sub-decree that would bring about broader reforms, but offered no details.

Rights groups have been complaining for years about the Prey Speu center, which the government uses to hold vagrants and drug users that police pick off Phnom Penh’s streets, often just ahead of events expected to draw large numbers of tourists or foreign delegates to the city.

The groups say the detentions are extra-judicial and, citing interviews with former detainees, accuse staff of beating and sexually assaulting their charges.

The center returned to the spotlight earlier this month when rights groups revealed that a homeless man had died there in late November. Citing their conversations with a Prey Speu security guard and others, they said the man was clearly ill when he arrived weeks earlier but was denied medical attention up until his death.

Asked about the case by reporters Thursday, Mr. Sauth said staff did everything they could for the man, who had been suffering from AIDS.

“If he had such a disease and the doctors said they couldn’t heal him and he died after we took him to the hospital, we can’t accuse the center of negligence and having no respect for human rights,” he said. “Actually, if they tried to treat him, his human rights were respected.”

Officials claim that the man, So Thea, was sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Referral Hospital during his time at the facility between November 2 and 26. However, the hospital’s daily log of patients shows no record of him.

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