The alleged abuses range from the almost childish to the vicious: One sex worker said police officers in the capital fired small rocks at her with a slingshot to chase her away from Wat Phnom Park; another said she was gang-raped two nights in a row after being taken to a Phnom Penh police station.
These and other abuses are part of a long-standing pattern in Cambodia, where “women and girls involved in sex work face beatings, rape, sexual harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and other cruel and degrading treatment” at the hands of authorities, according to a report released today by Human Rights Watch.
“For far too long, police and other authorities have unlawfully locked up sex workers, beaten and sexually abused them, and looted their money and other possessions,” said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of the New York-based group, in a statement today.
“The Cambodian government should order a prompt and thorough independent investigation into these systematic violations of sex workers’ human rights and shut down the centers where these people have been abused.”
Human Rights Watch based its findings on interviews conducted from July 2009 to April 2010 with more than 90 female and transgendered sex workers in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces, as well as in Phnom Penh.
Police officers in the capital’s districts of Daun Penh and Chamkar Mon-where sex workers loiter in large groups in public parks-were particularly abusive, the report says.
Ouch Sokhon, police chief for Chamkar Mon district, denied this in a telephone interview yesterday.
“They lie; they just want to distort us,” Mr Sokhon said when told of Human Rights Watch’s findings.
The police chief explained that his officers send detained sex workers to the Phnom Penh Department of Social Affairs, run by the Ministry of Social Affairs. He said his officers did not steal from the detainees as the report claims.
“We do not take money from them,” Mr Sokhon said. “Our police are not cheap to do that. This NGO should study clearly on this issue.”
Police and officials from the Ministry of Social Affairs often send detained sex workers to NGOs, but they also hand them over to government-run centers that are “effectively squalid jails,” Human Rights Watch said in the report. Some sex workers are sent to the capital’s Prey Speu social affairs center in Dangkao district’s Choam Chao commune, which has been criticized in the past.
“Sex workers detained in Prey Speu as recently as June 2010 were locked in their rooms, and only able to leave their rooms to bathe twice a day in dirty pond water, or, accompanied by a guard, to go to the toilet,” the report says.
At least 20 sex workers have been detained at Prey Speu since July 2009, despite an announcement by Phnom Penh municipal officials that it would no longer send sex workers there, according to Human Rights Watch, which asked for the center to be closed.
Lim El Djurado, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, denied yesterday that any sex workers are sent to Prey Speu.
“At the center there are only homeless people,” he said. “If you don’t believe me, you can visit.”
Mr El Djurado said the government sends sex workers only to NGOs, and denied that Ministry of Social Affairs officials are responsible for any abuse.
“The duty of [the Ministry of] Social Affairs is just to help them,” he said of sex workers. “Social Affairs does not force or torture them.”
Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, declined yesterday to comment directly on the Human Rights Watch report, saying he had not read it. But he said closing Prey Speu center might not be a good plan.
“I am not sure that closing Prey Speu center is a viable option,” Mr Peschoux wrote in an e-mail. “There are people who are there voluntarily and use it as a night shelter. The alternative for them is to sleep in the streets with the risk of being abused.”
In 2008, Cambodia passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation, which replaced a 1996 law. Human Rights Watch found that police officers use sections of the new law to “justify harassment of sex workers.”
The group also claimed that provisions in the law are “broad enough that they can be used to criminalize advocacy and outreach activities by sex worker groups and those who support them.”
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, declined to comment yesterday on any of Human Rights Watch’s findings, saying he had not seen the report. He did say, however, that Human Rights Watch should name perpetrators and victims-the HRW report fails to name either-so the government can “take action.” Because HRW fails to cite names, Mr Sopheak said such reports appear “politically motivated.”
Sara Colm, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that the group didn’t name victims so “that no one encounters additional abuse as a result of the report.” Perpetrators were also left unnamed in the report because Human Rights Watch is calling for change at the top levels of government, Ms Colm said.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch released a report criticizing the arbitrary detention of drug users in Cambodia.
Ms Colm said the two reports followed a Human Rights Watch decision to “examine in detail a couple of themes” arising out of “abuse by police or other authorities,” which she described as an ongoing problem in Cambodia.