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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sweep targets still in lockup

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People mill around the grounds of the Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre yesterday afternoon on the outskirts of Phnom Penh after they were rounded up by authorities last week. Hong Menea

Sweep targets still in lockup

More than 100 men, women and children rounded up from Phnom Penh’s streets last week remained in detention yesterday at the notorious Prey Speu Social Affairs Centre, with orders from City Hall to keep them there indefinitely.

The detainees – who authorities say are either homeless, sex workers or drug addicts – were forced into vans by mixed security forces over the course of a multi-day sweep and driven to the de facto prison.

When Post reporters visited the remote facility yesterday afternoon, dozens of people could be seen through its external fence cooking rice, lying on the grass and walking in circles.

Multiple children were also seen among the adult inmates, contradicting official claims that they had been sent to “education centres”. One girl, who looked no older than 3, rocked herself back and forth in a hammock.

No one appeared to be taking care of her.

While reporters were blocked from entering the facility to speak to the detainees, one woman, flanked by a security guard, rushed to the fence.

“I’ve been here for two days. I want to leave,” she said before being escorted back to the group.

A member of staff, who asked not be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said there were 110 people detained there.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) confirmed the figure.

“OHCHR human rights officers visited Prey Speu last week, where they saw an estimated 100 persons or so being held, including a number of children,” said OHCHR country representative Wan-Hea Lee.

Lee did not comment on whether OHCHR was undertaking efforts to secure the group’s release.

Historically, people detained at Prey Speu – or Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre as it is now officially known – have generally escaped within hours by climbing over its low external wall.

But staff at the centre said they were under strict orders not to let the latest group out until they had been given the green light from City Hall.

“We stop them from leaving. Officials told us we can’t let them escape until we get an official letter” from the Phnom Penh Municipality, one staff member said.

Daun Penh district governor Kouch Chamroeun said authorities were looking to find other accommodation and support for the detainees.

“They [the social affairs department] need time to find NGOs,” he said.

However, both of the NGOs that last year officially partnered with the city’s “street sweeps” — Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE) and Mith Samlanh — said they had not been told that people were being held in Prey Speu.

“We were not informed about the roundups last week,” PSE deputy program director Ouk Sovan said.

James Sutherland, a communications coordinator at Friends International, which partners with Mith Samlanh, said it was “a concern” to learn that people remained in detention.

Last week, Mith Samlanh took in 40 of those rounded up. They returned to the streets on Sunday afternoon, according to Sutherland.

Son Sophal, director of Phnom Penh’s Social Affairs Department, said he was not sure how long it would be before the group in Prey Speu could be freed.

“We need time to prepare documents for their release. There are many people,” he said.

Meanwhile, as they look forward to an indefinite detention, the detainees are left with little to do other than roam the grounds, sleep, and wait for one of their three daily meals.

Staff said five people have fallen sick at the centre since last week. There is no on-site health care.

Late last year, a man who had been detained there for weeks died after allegedly being denied medical treatment.

Even prior to his death, numerous allegations of abuse, rape and even murder have emerged from the facility.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, yesterday described Prey Speu as “a rights abomination that should have been bulldozed out of existence years ago”.

“It’s time for Cambodia to recognize that this kind of arbitrary, administrative detention is never okay, and for diplomats in Phnom Penh to raise their voices and demand these abuses stop.”

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