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A woman and her 1-year-old son sit in Daun Penh district
A woman and her 1-year-old son sit in Daun Penh district yesterday after they were allegedly taken to Prey Speu vocational training centre against their will. Heng Chivoan

Rounded up and held in squalor

Officials acknowledged for the first time yesterday that homeless people rounded up over the weekend – allegedly including a 1-year-old baby – were taken to Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Speu vocational training centre, where they were detained in squalid conditions for one night before escaping.

Three people told the Post in separate accounts yesterday that they were rounded up against their will on Sunday by the notorious Daun Penh district security guards and driven in a caged van to the remote facility, where they were locked in a single room with no toilet, little ventilation and no access to health care.

“They put us in a room where there were a lot of people and no bathroom. We had to urinate [and defecate] on the floor so there was a bad smell.… My [1-year-old] daughter was ill, but they didn’t allow me to go to the hospital,” 45-year-old Lim Srey said.

Seventeen-year-old Sok San, another of the 21 sent to the facility on Sunday, likened the conditions to that of a prison.

“There were more than 30 people staying in a room with locked doors.… They did not allow us to go to the bathroom.”

The group, which allegedly included four children, was rounded up as part of efforts to “clean” the streets for the Pchum Ben festival.

A further six female sex workers were sent to an NGO, those rounded up claimed.

The three witnesses said they escaped after the door was unlocked when officials from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) arrived. They said they then scaled a fence outside and claimed OHCHR helped to fund their travel back to the capital. OHCHR disputed the account of the fence, but did not comment on whether it paid for their trip home.

“OHCHR can confirm that people had indeed been sent to the Po Senchey Center [Prey Speu] after being detained and that these people were allowed to leave the Center,” Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR’s country representative, said in an email, using an alternative spelling of Por Sen Chey district.

“Human rights law precludes that anyone should be detained at [Prey Speu] against their will … that would amount to arbitrary detention,” she said.

After claiming on Sunday that those rounded up were sent back to the streets, Son Sophal, director of the Social Affairs Department, yesterday admitted that they had been sent to Prey Speu.

They were sent there “because the centre is a place for keeping homeless people for training, but they always escape,” he said.

Last month, Sophal said Prey Speu lacked “budget for training and food”.

A staff member at the facility, who earlier this week denied any homeless were there, said they were locked in a room because staff “were afraid of them escaping”.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called for the centre to be “bulldozed into the ground”.

“The reason drastic action is needed is there is clearly zero political will in the Cambodian government to end the consistent pattern of abuse that occurs there,” he said.

Kim Vutha, district security chief, said more homeless would be rounded up over the coming days in the name of “public order”.

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