Detainees endure violence and forced labour under poor conditions: report
The sign outside says ‘rehabilitation centre’. but if you go inside, you will see. it’s like a prison.
DRUG users sent to Cambodia’s government-run rehabilitation centres live under threat of beatings, sexual violence and arduous forced labour, all while being deprived of effective treatment that could help them overcome their addictions, according to a report set to be released today by Human Rights Watch.
Drawing on interviews conducted last year with 74 people, including 53 current or former drug users who have been held at least once, the report details what it calls instances of “sadistic violence” experienced by detainees at centres throughout the country.
“All of them told us the same story of outrageous abuses and horrible conditions,” said Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights.
“People described being beaten, whipped with electrical cables, electrical shocks or raped. They were forced to work and exercise to the point of collapse, even when they were sick and malnourished. These are supposed to be treatment centres. They’re not.”
The report aims to provide a glimpse inside the controversial facilities, where drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars are often taken after being caught up in police street sweeps. Rights groups have long criticised the centres, citing frequent allegations of violence and forced detention, and UN health officials have questioned the effectiveness of treatment programmes, assuming they are provided.
Violence in detention
The HRW report says that more than 2,000 people were detained in Cambodian drug-treatment centres in 2008 – the vast majority involuntarily.
The report identifies 11 such facilities currently operating where people are detained for three months at a time or longer.
The “overwhelming majority” of detainees interviewed for the report said they had experienced violence directly or witnessed it firsthand.
“Sadistic violence, experienced as spontaneous and capricious, is integral to the way in which drug detention centres operate,” the report states.
One former detainee, a 16-year-old identified in the report as M’noh, describes seeing staff members at a rehabilitation centre for youth in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao district using electrical wire to whip people.
“He had three kinds of cable, made from peeling off the plastic from an electrical wire,” M’noh says of one staffer in the report. “One cable was the size of a little finger, one is the size of a thumb and one is the size of a toe. He would ask you which you prefer. On each whip the skin would come off and stick on the cable.”
A detainee identified as Thouren reported that staff members shocked him with electric batons when he was caught smoking at Orgkas Khnom, a rehabilitation centre in the capital’s Russey Keo district.
“It’s like a burning sensation, real pain, you are shaking. It made me fall down to the ground,” Thouren is quoted as saying in the report. “You get it for smoking, arguing, fighting. They have a couple of batons they leave on a wall charging.”
In recent interviews with the Post, former detainees reported similar allegations of violence, forced confinement and crowded, unsanitary living conditions.
One former detainee, who said he had been held “six or seven times” at various centres throughout the Kingdom, including Orgkas Khnom and the youth centre in Choam Chao, told of severe beatings administered by guards. Former detainees as well as HRW say that the guards are often detainees themselves who are hand-picked by staff members to act as supervisers.
“In every last one you get beat up,” said the former detainee, who asked that he not be identified.
Minor transgressions were met with violence, he said.
“If you get caught smoking, if you’re not running fast enough, you get beaten. If you line up wrong, you get slapped,” he said.
“You’ve got to look the guard in the eyes and do what he says. If he wakes up in a bad mood, you get beaten.”
In one instance, he said, a detainee who tried to escape was tied to a flagpole in the sun while red ants were poured onto his legs. Others were forced to remove their clothing and roll in gravel until they bled, he said.
The former detainee said he, too, engaged in violence when he was chosen to be a guard during his last stint in a detention centre two months ago.
“You’ve got nothing but drug users as guards. They take advantage of you,” he said. “I was beaten. So what I did, it was like payback.”
Another former detainee, who is not a drug user, told the Post that police seized her and her three children when she was begging on the street
and brought her to Choam Chao. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth child.
“I didn’t have enough rice to eat,” she said. “When [the guards] give us food, they put rice in a plastic bag and then they throw it at us. They treat us like dogs.”
She said she and her children slept on the floor in packed rooms, brushing up against dozens of other detainees.
One of her daughters, who was 6 when she was in the centre, was given reading lessons during her stay. She said the guards generally allowed her to avoid the gruelling military-style drills other detainees were subjected to.
“I was pregnant,” she said. “Maybe they took pity on me.”
The former detainee said she now runs from police officers every time she sees them to avoid being brought back to the facilities.
“The sign outside says ‘Rehabilitation Centre’. But if you go inside, you will see. It’s like a prison,” she said.
In addition to the allegations of violence and forced confinement, the HRW report also attacks the efficacy of drug treatment at the facilities.
Any available treatment and rehabilitation in the centres, the report contends, is “ethically unacceptable, scientifically and medically inappropriate and of miserable quality”.
“Sweating while exercising or labouring appears to be the most common means to cure drug dependence,” the report states.
An unpublished 2007 report produced by the National Authority for Combating Drugs, the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation, which was based on visits to six treatment centres in operation at the time, suggests that authorities were aware of shortcomings in the treatment available at the facilities.
That report, which was obtained by the Post earlier this month, found that most centres had no doctors or nurses available.
None of the facilities employed trained psychologists or counsellors, offered any “evidence-based treatment” for addictions or conducted assessments for drug dependency when clients were admitted – meaning authorities were unsure whether clients being held at the facilities were even addicted to drugs.
“It is likely that some of the people residing in these centres are not dependent on illicit drugs, but have been incarcerated in the centre because they are homeless, because they are orphans or other street-living children, or because they are suffering [from] mental illness and are suspected to be drug users,” the unpublished report stated.
The 11 drug-treatment centres identified by HRW fall under the watch of a range of authorities, with local government officials, the Ministry of Social Affairs, civilian police and military police all controlling specific facilities. Officials reached by the Post all denied allegations of violence.
“We do not like these allegations,” said Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. The ministry oversees a civilian police force that operates at least two facilities – one in Battambang province and one in Siem Reap province.
“The government does not expect to get good reports from [HRW]. It is their profession to criticise us.”
Huot Sokhom, the deputy chief of the civilian police-run rehab centre in Siem Reap, also denied the allegations.
“We have never beaten them or used violence on them,” he said.
Huot Sokhom also denied that detainees were sent to the centres against their will.
“Those vagrant people we collect from the streets volunteer to come with us,” he said. “We do not force them.”
Sao Sokha, deputy commander in chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and the national military police commander at the Ministry of Defence, said allegations of violence at centres run by the military police – HRW identified five such facilities in its report, with a collective capacity of 400 people – are also untrue.
“Those centres are under my control. There are no threats or violence. The information that Human Rights Watch gets is not true,” Sao Sokha said.
“Everything we do is to respond to the needs of parents of drug users in the name of humanity to help those who are victims of drugs,” he said.
“We do not put them in prison.”
Sao Sokha questioned what would happen if the government-run centres were to close.
“There are hundreds, thousands of drug-dependent people on the street,” he said. “Who will be responsible for helping those people? Human rights NGOs or the Cambodian people?”
Moek Dara, secretary general of the NACD, also denied reports of beatings and forced detention.
“There is no violence. They accuse us without proof,” he said.
The NACD does not officially operate any of the rehabilitation centres, but the Post has previously reported on plans to open a national facility that would fall under the NACD’s jurisdiction in Preah Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district.
These official denials aside, HRW is calling for authorities to shut down the drug rehabilitation facilities in Cambodia.
“The government should immediately close all drug detention centres,” Amon said. “These centres are illegal, abusive and ineffective. The government should investigate and hold accountable detention centre staff who have been responsible for the abusive treatment of those held in these centres.”