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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Questions arise over man’s death at Prey Speu

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

Questions arise over man’s death at Prey Speu

A man has died at the notorious, overcrowded detention centre Prey Speu, the Ministry of Social Affairs confirmed yesterday, but conflicting accounts surround the circumstances of his death and no investigation has been launched.

Social Affairs spokesman Touch Channy said the unnamed man was 30 years old and was using drugs when he was rounded up off the streets and dumped at Prey Speu – where Phnom Penh’s “undesirable” drug users, mentally ill, sex workers and street children are often left to languish.

Channy said the man was only at the centre for one or two days before he died on September 25. “We did not do any investigation because the doctor said he had a heart attack because he is a drug user,” he said.

However, a senior official with knowledge of the case, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, claimed there had been an attempt at a “cover-up” and that “a security guard hit him” on the night he died.

Channy denied the accusations of assault at the hands of the guards.

Mith Samlanh Programme Manager Pin Sokhom said he had not been informed of the recent death, and it was impossible to tell if a withdrawal could be lethal without knowing the illicit substance used, but stressed the centre should have medical staff on site to take care of detainees.

Sokhom also noted the detention and subsequent death came during the government’s nationwide crackdown on drug dealers and users, which has seen almost 13,700 people arrested to date.

In August, UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith condemned the deteriorating conditions and arbitrary detention at the “rehabilitation centre”, saying there were 544 people detained there – almost double capacity.

The most recent death follows that of a recovering drug user with HIV in May, who, according to the Cambodia Daily, died 10 days after he was released from Prey Speu after being denied medication and methadone for more than a month.

The Post reported two deaths at the centre last year and two in 2015.

Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said Prey Speu was “beyond reform”.

“Prey Speu is a black hole for human rights abuses because anything goes, and there is never a credible investigation mounted into suspicious deaths like this one,” he said in an email.

“[A]s long as it remains open, more people will die there – so it’s time to do the right thing, and shut it down.”

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