Police in Phnom Penh arrested at least 274 sex workers on the streets last year before sending them to the notorious Prey Speu social affairs center, according to a grassroots NGO, which also reported that 80 percent of street workers in its care said they had been “violated” by on-duty officers.
The Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), which is run primarily by current and former sex workers, assisted in the release of 274 female sex workers from the detention center last year, managing director Samara Shehata said on Monday.
In an information sheet released last month based on interviews with some 300 sex workers in Phnom Penh, WNU states that street workers reported being arrested eight to nine times per year, on average. Eighty percent of those surveyed reported being “violated” by police officers, either physically or sexually.
Contacted on Monday, Daun Penh district governor Kouch Chamroeun angrily denied that police in his jurisdiction abused sex workers during regular street sweeps also targeting vagrants and drug addicts, but said that if any of the accusations could be proven, offending officers would be punished.
“Please show us the evidence. Please ask those who make the accusations to bring a lawsuit against us,” he said. “According to [the] law, people have the right to file complaints, but they must bring sufficient evidence.”
Mr. Chamroeun added that because offering sexual services in public violated Article 24 of the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, police had every right to arrest street workers.
Rather than apprehend and charge sex workers, however, police almost always remand them to Prey Speu—officially called the Pur Senchey Vocational Training Center, despite offering no vocational training—where staffers have long been accused of committing sexual and physical abuse against detainees.
And because sex workers held at Prey Speu have not received due process, nor faced prosecution in court, their detention is unlawful, according to Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho.
“It is a serious infringement on their rights and against the law when authorities arrest them for detention without going through the court procedure,” he said.
Other advocates pointed out that corruption and fear of authority would make the prospect of filing suit against officers exceedingly daunting.
“It’s hard for victims to file the complaint against law enforcement officers,” said Huon Chundy, director of the Community Legal Education Center.
“The courts [have] not proven any commitment to act neutrally, or prosecute human rights violators,” he said.
According to Ms. Shehata, victims are also afraid to gather in protest and file group complaints.
“We tread on eggshells, Ms. Shehata said during an interview in December. “The sex workers have built relationships with departments and members of police so we can release sex workers from certain prisons.”
A 29-year-old sex worker from Prey Veng province who alternately seeks out customers on the riverside, near Wat Phnom and across the street from the Hotel Cambodiana, said she had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of clients, and physical abuse by police.
“I never go to complain to the police or ask for help whenever I am assaulted by customers because it will just cost me money,” she said.
“Police look down on us and mistreat us because they say sex workers like me are not good people.”
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)