Cambodia's long-pilloried drug detention centres continue to be hotbeds of violence, sexual abuse and forced labour, and serve more as a place to keep “undesirables” out of sight than as centres of rehabilitation, according to a report by Human Rights Watch released yesterday.
The report, titled They Treat Us Like Animals, details a litany of abuses undergone by those who are locked up in the centres without due process and, at times, without even being drug addicts.
One detainee, identified in the report as Smonh, said that he had been clean for years prior to being summarily detained in Phnom Penh’s Orkas Knhom (“My Chance”) centre, where he was beaten for no apparent reason. After an escape attempt, things only became worse.
“They beat me like they were whipping a horse. A single whip takes off your skin. A guard said, ‘I’m whipping you so you’ll learn the rules of the center!’” Smonh was quoted as saying. “I just pleaded with them to stop beating me. I felt I wasn’t human any more.”
Even though he had kicked his meth habit four years before his detention, Smonh said, he returned to drugs immediately upon his release.
“I feel crazy because of the beatings I received inside the center,” he said. “Now I sniff a can of glue a day and, if I can afford it, I smoke yama [a type of methamphetamine],” he was quoted as saying.
The centres are also routinely used to house beggars, the homeless, sex workers and other “undesirables”, who are often rounded up ahead of visits by foreign dignitaries, as was the case before last year’s ASEAN summit, the report maintains.
“People are often released profoundly traumatised by the abuse they suffer; there’s nothing in the centres that is even remotely therapeutic,” said Joseph Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, in an email yesterday.
“So this system isn’t about treatment, it’s about having a convenient dumping ground for people considered too ‘undesirable’ to be left in liberty,” he added.
The government has closed three of its centres since HRW’s 2010 report, but the number of people detained remains unchanged, Amon said. However, 12 UN agencies and the health organisation Global Fund have since taken stances against the centres, he added.
Robert Ali, the chair of the Asia-Pacific Drugs and Development Issues Committee, said he was aware of poorly run centres in China and Vietnam, and that “there’s nothing I’ve seen about the centres in Cambodia to lead me to believe that they would be any different”.
“The assessment of the centres has found relapse rates of between 85 and 95 per cent, and we have found that the centres are essentially doing nothing,” he said. “All they’re doing is delaying drug use … because they aren’t providing effective treatment. They’re just holding people against their will.”
Kao Khon Dara, deputy chairman of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, declined to comment.