Security personnel watched 22 distraught women and children climb the walls of Prey Speu social affairs centre and flee in tuk-tuks at about 11am yesterday after SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Sovann Visakha visited the site to tell them that the government had no right to lock them up.
Earlier, the women and children, who were among 30 detained during a Borei Keila protest in Phnom Penh last Wednesday and held without charge, had accepted food and water from relatives and made impassioned pleas for their release through journalists who also gathered outside.
It wasn’t long before the items were being handed back and the detainees were climbing the grey brick walls.
Older women and small children were boosted up and passed to those who had gone before them and the detainees ran to tuk-tuks.
Prior to the escape, Mu Sochua and Sovann Visakha were granted access to the site.
Mu Sochua addressed the emotional women who knelt in front of her – many crying and some rocking their weary children – as relatives watched through the bars of the centre’s main entrance.
She was calling for the detainees to be released because Vann Nhann, the director of Prey Speu, had told her that the women and children’s names did not appear in any official detainee lists, she said.
“[Vann Nhann] has absolutely no idea who these people are; they have no papers,” she said.
“They have no right to hold them here. I [challenged] them to unlock these gates and let them out,” she said, adding that she had not told the detainees to climb the walls.
Vann Nhann declined to comment.
Mu Sochua said the SRP plans to lodge a complaint to the Ministry of Justice about the municipality of Phnom Penh authority, which she said was responsible for detaining the women and children at Prey Speu, adding that she wasn’t scared of the consequences.
Prey Speu security officials did not try to stop the detainees from escaping, but refused to unlock the entrance gate and let them walk out, Mu Sochua said.
Escapee Tem Sak Mony, 51, said Suy Sophan, the owner of the Phan Imex Company, was trying to force them to accept compensation of between US$100 and $500 and a small house in Toul Sambo or a small plot of land in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district.
“She threatened us that we would be detained in this centre forever if we didn’t accept her offer,” she said, referring to Suy Sophan’s visit to the centre a day earlier.
In 2003, development firm Phan Imex agreed to construct 10 buildings on two hectares of land to house 1,776 Borei Keila families, in exchange for development rights to a remaining 2.6 hectares. The firm has constructed only eight buildings.
Tuk-tuks drove the women and children to the office of the Housing Rights Task Force in Khan Meancheay yesterday, where relieved family and friends cheered them.
Nhin Sun, 42, whose wife Chum Nhann escaped yesterday, told the Post that he was happy to be reunited with her.
“However, we are still concerned that [Phan Imex] will not pay compensation to us and the authority will arrest them again when we protest to demand a resolution.”
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said his office was offering legal advice to the families.
“The centre owners told members of parliament that those people were not on the list,” he said.
“They tried to ask the centre to open the door, but they did not because I think [employees] are maybe afraid of what will happen next.”
It was too early to tell exactly how the women and children had been treated in Prey Speu, he said.
His centre was giving the families advice on their rights and was working with other organisations to take legal action relating to all Borei Keila issues.
“We have a legal team . . . it will prepare a complaint to [Phnom Penh Municipal Court] saying that the company violated their agreement. When the people are ready, [the legal team] will help.
“I don’t know if the authority will want to make any trouble for our office . . . we will wait and see.”
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho, said she was monitoring the situation.
“It is difficult to say what will happen to them, since these women have already been put in Prey Speu against their will and illegally detained without any charge or warrant for arrest,” she said.
Suy Sophan could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Phnom Penh municipality’s director of the social affairs department, Saon Sophal, and its deputy chief of administration, Kiet Chhe, declined to comment.
They referred the Post to the municipality’s press release of January 13, which says that the detainees came from 22 families. Of those, 14 had illegally bought a house on the state’s land during the restricted period, six had illegally bought a house to rent out, one had been compensated with a house but had sold it and one was an “opportunist squatter”.
Phnom Penh governor Kep Chutema also declined to comment yesterday.
Sia Phearum said last night that neither police nor the government had tried to contact his office or the women and children.
They were still at his office and will return to Borei Keila today, he said.
Of the original 30 detainees, five children had already been released because of illness and two women accepted Suy Sophan’s compensation offer on Monday, while another woman had been called to a meeting with her and the village chief, villagers told the Post.