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Dire rights report: Sex workers face rape and beatings

Dire rights report: Sex workers face rape and beatings

They kicked my neck, my waist and hit my head and my body with a broomstick. It lasted about half an hour.

HUMAN Rights Watch has accused the Cambodian government of subjecting sex workers to rape and severe beatings at the hands of law-enforcement officials at controversial detention centres.

In a report scheduled for release today, the United States-based watchdog claims to chronicle abuses faced by sex workers rounded up by police and sent to the facilities, which have previously drawn its criticism.

The facilities, administered by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, are Prey Speu, located in Dangkor district’s Choam Chao commune, and Koh Kor, located on an island in the Bassac River.

The report, titled Off the Streets: Arbitrary Detention and Other Abuses against Sex Workers in Cambodia, draws from more than 90 interviews during the course of the past year. The physical abuse it describes allegedly took place between 2007 and 2009.

In several instances, sex workers accused police officers of rape.

Others said police punched them or beat them with sticks, wooden handles and electric batons.

“One of the police officers pointed his gun at my head and pulled the trigger, but the bullet did not fire,” says Neary, a transgendered sex worker quoted in the report.

Describing an incident that allegedly took place in April 2009 in Daun Penh district, Neary says: “They kicked my neck, my waist and hit my head and my body with a broomstick. It lasted about half an hour.”

Other interviewees said conditions at the centres were decrepit, describing “gross overcrowding and lack of adequate food, clean drinking water, and medical care”.

The report calls for the centres to be closed and for arbitrary arrest and detention to end. It says past abuse allegations should be investigated.

Cambodia has long faced criticism for its use of detention centres, where marginalised groups like sex workers, beggars and drug users are sent after police street sweeps.

Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that long-standing problems had not been addressed, and that police and other officials responsible for them were not being held to account.

“This report is an attempt to push the government to investigate the accounts of abuse,” she said.

Naly Pilorge, executive director of the rights group Licadho, said her group had conducted similar inquiries. She also believes the mistreatment of sex workers is ongoing.

“These social affairs centres should be closed. The conditions are terrible, and the violence and levels of abuse suffered by some of the most vulnerable members of society is high,” she said Officials, however, questioned the report’s findings.

Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said the government was quick to respond after abuse allegations at Prey Speu and Koh Kor surfaced in 2008.

I am wondering if the new report just repeated old issues,” she said.

“We do not want Human Rights Watch to write the same things again and again.”

The Koh Kor centre is believed to have been closed. But the report says at least eight sex workers have been sent to Prey Speu since May.

A woman identified by HRW as Srey Thea, 22, said she was held there in June. She described overcrowded, unclean rooms, and said she was allowed to leave only to go to the toilet or bathe in dirty pond water.

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