Local rights group Licadho issued a statement Sunday criticizing the government for neglecting to investigate allegations of abuse committed at two state-run social affairs centers, for allowing staff members implicated in the allegations to continue working at the centers and for failing to close the centers.
The criticism came in response to a statement issued by the Ministry of Social Affairs on Thursday denying previous allegations made by Licadho of human rights abuses at the Prey Speu and Koh Kor centers, both operated by the Phnom Penh municipal social affairs department.
The Ministry of Interior investigated Licadho’s initial allegations of abuse at the centers, which were sent to the government in a letter dated June 18. Licadho’s June statement said it investigated the centers in June and found they were used for the “systematic unlawful detention” of sex workers and other people, such as the homeless, and it called for the “immediate and complete” closure of the centers.
The findings of the Interior Ministry’s investigation were detailed in a letter dated Sept 25 from ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, who wrote that the ministry states there are “no witnesses to reveal any abuses in the center” and that staff at Koh Kor would lock residents indoors for a “short time to ensure safety” while they had lunch, which was not illegal, as Licadho alleged in its June statement.
“The time for denials from the government is past,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said in the statement.
“The fact that Prey Speu and Koh Kor not only remain open, but are still run by the same managers and staff who are implicated in abuses, is an affront to their countless victims,” Pilorge said.
Licadho staff who visited the Prey Speu center in Dangkao district’s Choam Chao commune Thursday said they discovered employees previously implicated in alleged abuses against detainees still working at the center, as well as several disturbing messages carved into the walls of rooms at the center.
“The walls of Prey Speu speak very clearly about what has happened there for years—human beings, unlawfully arrested from the streets, have been locked up like animals in appalling conditions,” Pilorge said in the statement.
An Ly, deputy director of the Prey Speu center, denied the allegations in Licadho’s recent statement. “We don’t detain them; this is an accusation. I don’t abuse or pressure those people rights,” An Ly said, adding that the center is housing 150 homeless people and that neither Prey Speu or the Koh Kor center, in Sa’ang district in Kandal province, will close.
Furthermore, he said, the messages on the walls were written by children staying at the center.
Sorn Sophal, director of Phnom Penh’s municipal department of social affairs, also denied the claims in Licadho’s statement. “The government doesn’t allow us to act like Licadho’s allegations,” he said by phone Sunday, adding that the centers were established for humanitarian purposes, not to abuse people.
Licadho expressed concern about unlawful arrests and detention of people who live on the street during this week’s Water Festival, but Deputy Daun Penh District Governor Pich Socheata said authorities in her district have stopped collecting beggars and street children after the municipal department of social affairs refused to accept 40 people detained Monday.