Inmates at the Koh Kor rehabilitation center eye freedom from behind the bars of the government-run facility in Kandal province on June 17.
They had made it about half way across the Bassac River when 23-year-old Chang Yang Min heard his fellow escapee mutter that he was tired. When he turned around, the boy – whose name he never knew – had slipped below the water.
“He didn’t have the strength to swim all the way across,” Min said. “It took me an hour to do it but I was determined since I knew I’d die if I stayed on the island – the prison guards told me I was to be detained indefinitely.”
On June 21, Min escaped from Koh Kor, a former Khmer Rouge prison which is now a government-run rehabilitation center under the jurisdiction of the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Department.
The center had been open for two months but was abruptly emptied on June 24 as reports that the scores of drug addicts, street kids and mentally ill held behind its padlocked gates were being beaten or starved drew the attention of the United Nations and NGOs.
At least two people died, including one woman whose corpse lay under a dirty tarpaulin in the stifling heat for days and the youth who perished when Min made his swim for freedom.
Koh Kor, in Kandal province’s Sa’ang district, and Prey Speu, a similar center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that remains open, had been receiving a constant trickle of inmates – for years, in the case of Prey Speu.
But against the backdrop of Cambodia’s new anti-trafficking legislation that has seen a massive crackdown on the sex trade, the nighttime police sweeps that filled both sites had picked up dramatically at the start of this year, rights groups say.
They add that the arrests and subsequent reports of abuse emerging from both centers point towards a government policy gone horribly awry.
“These Social Affairs centers have been part of an institutionalized program of unlawful detention of vulnerable persons who have been arbitrarily arrested on Phnom Penh’s streets,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho.
“We urge the government to ensure the closure of these centers and to order an immediate halt to the routine round-ups of sex workers, beggars and homeless people from the street,” she said.
Detainees – men, women and children all sharing the same bare space – were held in “appalling conditions” at the government-run centers, according to Licadho.
The group also said there is credible evidence that those incarcerated suffered violence at the hands of their keepers and were forced to subsist on “grossly inadequate” food, water and other basic supplies.
“At Koh Kor it was very difficult. There was not enough food, no mosquito nets or blankets and at night it was very cold,” said Min, a former drug addict who is now homeless.
“There was ... no medicine when you got sick.”
Min was picked up by police on June 16 while walking to visit his relatives in the capital.
The police who arrested him took his $5 and anti-diarrhea medicine – needed for heroin withdrawal. Min was thrown into a truck and driven to Koh Kor. But after five days in detention alongside more than 50 other inmates, some of whom were as young as eight, he was desperate enough to risk swimming to freedom.
UN officials have responded strongly to the detentions, saying that simply removing the city’s poor, infirm, mentally ill, drug addicted or prostitutes from the streets was no solution to pervasive poverty.
“We trust that detaining poor people is not the policy of the Ministry of Social Affairs,” said Christophe Peschoux, representative of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in Phnom Penh.
“But the fact is that in these two cases (Koh Kor and Prey Speu) people were detained and this practice must stop,” he added.
“Rounding up people on the streets and locking them up is not the way to address the problem of poverty.”
On June 25, UNHCHR discussed the issue during a two-hour long meeting with the secretary of state at the Ministry of Social Affairs and his staff, which Peschoux said was “constructive.”
“We know these are very complicated issues which cannot be addressed overnight with limited resources,” he said.
“But the bottom line is that ... locking people in is a form of detention which is illegal and which is a criminal offense.”
Kouy Kimlean, deputy director of Phnom Penh’s Department of Social Affairs, denied that there was any organized program of extra-judicial arrests and detentions.
“The department has no principle to crack down on or collect these [street] people and keep them out of the city,” Kimlean said, adding that she was unaware that Koh Kor was closed.
Koh Kor’s director, Chea Sarun, said, however, that the order to close the center came from the department.
“Now there are only five who have mental health issues left here because they have no relatives or place to go,” Sarun told the Post on June 25, acknowledging the difficulties of looking after so many detainees with few resources – particularly medicine for the ill.
“One [detainee] died of a serious illness which they’d had since they arrived,” he said.
“The center has no medicine, no capacity to help addicts to quit drugs,” he added.
Uncertainty clouds the joy of those newly liberated from Koh Kor, all of whom are aware they may soon fall prey to the routine round-ups which are still ongoing.
“They [Korsang’s clients] are all terrified to be out on the streets at night,” said Holly Bradford, founder of Korsang, a harm reduction NGO which works with thousands of Cambodian drug users.
“So we’ve hired an additional ten staff and shifted our entire programmatic structure to respond to this crisis,” she added.
Some 300 of Korsang’s participants have vanished over the last few weeks. The organization, which was able to locate around 30 who were being held at Koh Kor, has now been inundated with drug users desperate to keep themselves off the streets.
“This is unprecedented,” Bradford told the Post on June 24. “Before when there have been police sweeps maybe ten or 15 participants have been taken away, but to be missing hundreds, no.”