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New tragedy in ‘Hell Life’

Prey Speu
Detainee's wander the grounds of the Prey Speu social affairs centre, where a man died last month after a street sweep rounded up beggars and the homeless. Pha Lina

New tragedy in ‘Hell Life’

A man who was detained for weeks at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu social affairs centre died late last month after being denied medical treatment at the infamously abusive facility, rights groups, staff and fellow detainees said yesterday.

The revelation came as Post reporters witnessed a “resident” at the centre being beaten by a member of staff.

In a joint statement, Human Rights Watch and Licadho said the man, named only as Phea, was taken to the centre on November 2 after being rounded up as part of a government effort to “clean” the streets for the Water Festival.

This contradicts multiple claims from authorities before and during the festival that no street sweeps were taking place.

“Phea, who had been living on the streets, was seriously ill when taken into custody. He was extremely thin and covered with infected wounds on his legs and other parts of his body,” the statement said.

Despite his illness “the center staff made no effort to provide him medical treatment and refused to take him elsewhere”.

According to the statement, on the morning of November 26, after almost a month in detention, Phea died and his body was taken for immediate cremation at Wat Sopheakhuon.

“Police failed to launch any proper investigation into his death,” the rights groups said.

Speaking at the capital’s Freedom Park yesterday, 20-year-old So Ratha said she was detained at the centre at the time of Phea’s death. Ratha claimed that while inmates at the centre heard about his death, staff at the facility “hid the information”.

“They did not try to find the relatives, they just sent him off.”

Ratha, who has already been detained at Prey Speu multiple times this year, said that she escaped the facility by climbing over its low external wall after just a few days.

“There is no food, we just got porridge every day … and the staff always beat people”, she said.

At the centre’s locked gated entrance yesterday afternoon, a member of staff confirmed Phea’s death, adding that he was just 30 years old.

“He stayed a long time because his illness meant he couldn’t escape,” said the staff member, who declined to be named, adding that Phea had in fact been at the centre for two months.

But, he said, the centre wasn’t responsible for the fatality.

“We give people food and look after them,” he said. “We brought in a doctor but he still died”.

Since it opened in 2004, numerous allegations of abuse, rape and even murder have emerged from the facility.

A girl is pictured at Freedom Park yesterday. She was previously detained at Prey Speu social affairs centre when many beggars and homeless people were collected and removed from the streets
A girl is pictured at Freedom Park yesterday. She was previously detained at Prey Speu social affairs centre when many beggars and homeless people were collected and removed from the streets. Pha Lina

Photographs, taken by Licadho in 2008, show messages of desperation etched onto its walls. One simply reads: “Hell Life”.

Following the allegations, Prey Speu shut down in June 2012, but was reopened last year, rebranded as the Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre. However, the centre continues to act as a dumping ground for the capital’s “undesirables” and de facto asylum for people the state considers mentally ill.

As the staff member declared yesterday that the 10 people currently detained at the centre are well cared for, the scene behind him told a very different story.

A young child, who the Prey Speu employee said was one of two, aged 3 and 6, and who had been staying at the centre for two weeks, wandered around aimlessly.

A man, dressed only in a shirt, chanted rhythmically as he paced in circles and pulled grass out of the earth. A member of staff pulled his head back and hit it with a baton.

When asked what vocational training was on offer, the staffer said “sitting outside”, but declined to explain for what profession that prepared people.

He later said residents were taught “hairdressing and farming” but no evidence of this could be seen.

Staff would not allow the Post to speak to detainees, but admitted that “nobody” wants to stay at the facility.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which visited the centre on Wednesday, once again called for an end to street sweeps yesterday.

“The manner in which those caught up in ‘street sweeps’ – without charges of the commission of any crime, judicial supervision, or other procedural guarantees required under human rights law – constitutes arbitrary detention, which must be halted,” Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR country representative, said in an email.

“OHCHR recognises the urgent need to find appropriate long-term solutions for those who choose to remain at Prey Speu for lack of alternatives.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he was not aware of Phea’s death, but said that the city sweeps would continue.

Licadho and HRW called for all centres “arbitrarily detaining people outside the criminal justice system” to be closed immediately.

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