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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Population at notorious Prey Speu detention centre twice capacity, UN envoy says

Detainees sit on the steps of a building at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu detention centre last year.
Detainees sit on the steps of a building at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu detention centre last year. Erin Handley

Population at notorious Prey Speu detention centre twice capacity, UN envoy says

Conditions at the notorious Prey Speu detention centre have deteriorated drastically in the past year, according to UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, who yesterday said the number of detainees had swollen to more than 500 – nearly double the centre’s capacity.

In a closed-door meeting with Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth, a recording of which was obtained by The Post, Smith articulated her concerns about Cambodia’s questionable “rehabilitation” centres, among them Prey Speu.

She described the present conditions in Prey Speu – where the city’s “undesirable” drug-users, sex workers and street children are routinely rounded up – as “much worse than [during] my visit last year”.

“One of the main reasons is that [on Tuesday] there were 544 people there, which is almost double the capacity of the centre,” she said. “Unfortunately, Your Excellency, the answer to the problem of addressing people in street situations is not to lock them up.”

Her comments come more than a year after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered for the centre to be improved or shut down – an ultimatum Smith supported in her Human Rights Council report last year. The premier claimed the centre was a constant thorn in his side that “polluted” the Kingdom’s human rights record.

Smith said she understood there was no systematic method of rehabilitation or reintegration at Prey Speu and other centres, including Chivit Thmey – or New Life, in English – in Banteay Meanchey, which she visited earlier this week.

“I have some concerns, Your Excellency, about rehabilitation in these centres, because it appeared to me there were not many trained people working on drug rehabilitation or on the health issues,” she said.

“And in Prey Speu [on Tuesday], there were many people who said they had been there for many weeks or many months. And many wanted to leave but were not permitted to do so.”

“For me, this means that the drop-in centre and also some of the drug rehabilitaion centres are places of detention. If people are not permitted to leave, we must determine the legitimacy of the detention.”

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UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith (left) shakes hands with Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth after a meeting yesterday in Phnom Penh. Facebook

Soth responded that while the situation might indeed fit the definition of “detention”, he maintained that some detainees were permitted to leave after a while and that the government was also trying to curb undesirable habits.

“Some people, we can say that they think that it might be habit for them; they think that begging is the easy way to find money so it becomes their habit. They want to not stay in the centre and they come back to beg,” he said.

Smith agreed that while some might prefer begging to make a living, she said – with respect – “this can also indicate the lack of a comprehensive social protection system for all Cambodians”.

Soth said the government’s campaign on drugs – which Social Affairs Ministry officials yesterday said was largely responsible for the inflated numbers at Prey Speu – was “a very complex issue”.

“We can assume that it has a positive result under the leadership,” he said.

“We are studying the experience of other countries, how to make this centre transform, and then to rehabilitate the people so that they give up the drug addiction forever.”

Soth also noted a new centre for juvenile prisoners, with a capacity for 1,000, would be established soon, as a sub-decree is due by early September.

Ministry of Social Affairs spokesman Em Chan Makara yesterday said the government had “done our best” to reconstruct the centre, and it was an ongoing effort to bring in electricity, health services and adequate food.

He said “the main issue” was that the government didn’t expect to arrest so many street dwellers, “especially those with drug abuse” problems.

He said the influx was linked to the government’s drug crackdown.

Smith said she was pleased to see children were not present at the centre, but urged for the release of pregnant women and other vulnerable people.

Sorn Sophal, director of the Municipal Social Affairs Department which oversees the centre, echoed Soth’s claims that a new centre for mentally ill people would see around half of Prey Speu’s inhabitants shipped out, meaning the troubled centre “will not have any problems any more”.

“When there are relatives coming to ensure [their safety], we will let them out. We don’t detain,” Sophal said.

Additional reporting by Kong Meta

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