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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN finds torture, fears murder in wat

UN finds torture, fears murder in wat

ALLEGATIONS of illegal detention, torture and murder have prompted United Nations

human rights officials to ask Phnom Penh Municipal Court officials to investigate

activities at Wat Vongkot Borei in Phnom Penh.

"The allegations against the pagoda are serious and we have enough evidence

to believe these victims have been tortured," Marlene Alejos, Chief of the Monitoring

and Protection Unit at the Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

(COHCHR), told the Post on October 25.

"We also have information that confirms that [local police] authorities have

been aware of what's been going on ... We're very concerned and conclude that there's

been official acquiescence [with illegal activities at the wat]."

And a high official at the Ministry of Cults and Religions said the abbot of the

wat is given to beating his drivers, boys in the wat, and beggars.

Alejos confirmed that the Human Rights Office was preparing a letter to be sent to

Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Yet Chariya on October 26 to "show UN

support" for official resolution of allegations of violence and torture at the

wat.

"We will continue our investigation with Licadho (the Cambodian League for the

Promotion and Defense of Human Rights) into this case," Alejos said.

When contacted by the Post, Chariya would confirm only that his investigation into

activities at the pagoda was continuing.

Revelations about irregularities at the pagoda arose after statements made to COHCHR

and human rights workers by two male youths - one 14 years old, the other 21 - who

reported that they were detained at the pagoda on October 15 due to a "debt

dispute" and subsequently subjected to more than 24 hours of physical abuse

by monks and pagoda residents.

The torture allegedly culminated in the two youths being forced to sign "confessions"

for stealing.

Findings by Licadho on the case of the two youths - who were freed late on October

16 after pleas by family members - indicate that the pair exhibit wounds consistent

with a variety of methods of torture, including beatings with rifle butts, welts

consistent with being whipped with electrical wire, and burns consistent with the

application of lit cigarettes.

Suspicions about the wat were further heightened by the discovery of a semi-conscious

youth by the roadside behind the temple with beating and stab wounds he says were

inflicted on him in a 24 hour period of brutal physical abuse between October 16

and 17.

The youth, whose vital signs remain very low due to his ordeal, is being cared for

in a protected location by human rights workers fearful that pagoda residents may

seek to silence him.

The youths' allegations - along with a report by one of the victims that he had encountered

a third, unidentified male youth who claimed to have been detained at the pagoda

since September 14 and showed signs of similar physical abuse - led to an attempt

by Chariya and COHCHR investigators to search the wat on October 17.

Attempts by the group to gain access to a pagoda building from which cries for help

were heard by both Chariya and COHCHR investigators were stalled by the refusal of

monks to open the building's locked door.

Although a subsequent search of the structure 20 minutes later indicated that the

building was empty, investigators suspect the third victim was secretly smuggled

out of the building while they were kept waiting outside.

That suspicion has been heightened by the discovery in Toul Krasang in Takmau on

October 21 of the body that matches the description of the third missing detainee.

The location of the corpse - in a pond near the headquarters of Hun Sen's personal

bodyguard unit - has rung alarm bells among investigators.

"The two victims have told us that their captors repeatedly told them that if

they did not cooperate, they would take them to Toul Krasang and '...feed them to

the crocodiles'," the investigator said, adding that COHCHR would press authorities

to follow up any links between the corpse and Wat Vongkot Borei.

Evidence is mounting that the above four cases of torture and detention at the pagoda

are just the tip of the iceberg.

Investigators have told the Post that commune officials have confirmed that at least

four other cases of illegal detention and torture have occurred at the wat in the

last two months.

"People have been detained at the pagoda for as long as two weeks," the

investigator told the Post. "The pagoda authorities then present a 'report'

to the police and ask that the victims be prosecuted for crimes they've allegedly

committed."

An investigation by the Ministry of Cults and Religions has supported the investigator's

claims.

The Secretary of State for the Ministry of Cults and Religions, In Visa Um, told

the Post on October 25 that a ministry investigation into activities at the wat confirms

allegations of routine, systematized violence on the wat grounds, and said the Abbot

of the wat, Men Chan Ponleu, himself beats his drivers, boys living in the wat, and

beggars.

"It is a long story; a true story," said Visa Um. "His two drivers

have been beaten by [him] ... he beats his drivers, boys, and beggars."

Ponleu angrily dismissed the allegations against him and his fellow monks.

"People are trying to destroy our pagoda's [reputation]. This is inhumane,"

he told the Post in an interview on October 24. "We are going to sue the UN

and Licadho very soon if they do not apologize [for making such allegations]."

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