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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Detentions decried as 'appalling'

Detentions decried as 'appalling'

Group says govt has failed to address concerns about policy.

A CAMPAIGN to rid the city's streets of sex workers, beggars and homeless people is subjecting increasing numbers to arbitrary arrest and "appalling abuses" at government-run social affairs centres, the rights group Licadho said Sunday.

The organisation claims dozens of people have been arbitrarily detained in Daun Penh district in nighttime sweeps by district security guards or police over the past month as part of a long-standing effort to beautify the capital.

"Once again, the government is treating poor people who live and work on the streets as though they are criminals," Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said in the statement.

In one sweep, conducted on the night of July 19, 12 adult sex workers were arrested by police near Wat Phnom and taken to a local police station, where they were locked in a bathroom, according to the statement.

Witnesses cited in the statement say the women were "kicked or beaten" by police before being fingerprinted and photographed and sent to the municipal social affairs department.

Four of those detained were HIV-positive, Licadho said, adding that they missed three days of antiretroviral drugs during the process of arrest and detention. Licadho called that interruption "potentially life-threatening".

The recent sweeps are just the latest to take place in the capital, and Licadho claims the government has done little to address concerns about the practice, particularly relating to the detention of street people at Prey Speu, a government-run "social affairs centre" in Choam Chao district.

In June 2008, Licadho President Kek Galabru sent a letter to the Ministry of Interior alerting the government to the unlawful arrest and detention of street people as well as claims of "beatings, extreme overcrowding, insufficient food ... [and] alleged rapes of female detainees" at Prey Speu.

In its 2009 global human rights report, released in May, Amnesty International said that "at least three" detainees were beaten to death at government centres in 2008.

In its response to Licadho, a copy of which has been obtained by the Post, the Ministry of Interior defended the sweeps, arguing that sex workers had "provoked public disorder and affected [the] dignity and morality of the Cambodian society".

It also said staff at Prey Speu were trained to be "conscious, professional and charitable".

Blight on the city
Daun Penh Deputy Governor Sok Penhvuth said every district in the capital had received orders to round up street people, and that sweeps took place about twice a week.

"Daun Penh district is the tourist, political and economic heart of [the city]. In order to keep the city clean ... we have to take action until there are no more street people," he said.

When contacted Sunday, Prey Speu Chief An Ly said he had no knowledge of abuses at the centre, having just recently taken the position.

Am Sam Ath, a monitor at Licadho, said the group had not seen any evidence of a government investigation at Prey Speu, adding that there was "no real policy" for giving support to street people.

"We are not against the policy of the government to keep the city beautiful and in order," he said.

"But ... the government has to respect poor people."

Others said the city's policy was ill-conceived.

"Vague and arbitrary notions of what makes a city 'beautiful' should not undermine the basic health and human rights of poor Cambodians," said Joe Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, who pointed to the treatment of HIV sufferers as a case in point.

He added: "How could a government that has received international recognition as an AIDS 'success story' care so little about the actual health and human rights of people living with, and vulnerable to, HIV infection?"

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