Two people detained at Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Speu social affairs centre died last month after being rounded up from the streets as part of the city’s preparations for the Pchum Ben festival, a local rights group has said, prompting renewed calls for the facility’s closure.
The fatalities come three months after officials vowed to improve conditions at the centre, which is used as a dumping ground for the capital’s “undesirables” – including homeless people, beggars, drug users, sex workers and the mentally ill – and has long been linked to a raft of abuses.
They are the second and third such deaths at Prey Speu in less than a year.
In November 2014, a man who was rounded up as part of a government effort to “clean” the streets for the Water Festival died there after being denied medical care. When he arrived at the centre weeks earlier, he was severely underweight and covered with infected wounds.
In a statement released today, local rights group Licadho says a man, aged between 40 and 50 and reportedly mentally ill, drowned in a pond inside the centre’s grounds during the three-day Pchum Ben holiday.
A woman in her 30s who was detained alongside her husband died just days later on October 16.
“Licadho’s investigation revealed that the cause of her death was not established prior to her cremation,” the statement says.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the agency had also “received reports of two deaths at Prey Speu from various sources”.
“We hope to visit the centre soon to follow up as necessary,” she added.
At the remote centre on Sunday, detainees spoke of two other homeless men who were brought there as part of the Pchum Ben round-ups but have since disappeared after being taken away last week.
Speaking through the bars of the centre’s gated entrance, one man explained how a car from the Social Affairs Department arrived to take the pair away.
“They left because they were ill. They went to hospital but I don’t know which one,” he said.
Since the Post last visited Prey Speu in July, barbed wire has been installed on top of its external fencing, which detainees have historically been able to climb over to escape the compound.
Thirty-five-year-old Ly Soeun, who was among those rounded up ahead of Pchum Ben, walked out of the centre on Sunday afternoon with his 7-year-old son.
Following his detainment, Soeun was offered work as a security guard there but said he was leaving because conditions were so bad. “They beat and abuse everyone,” he said, referring to Prey Speu staffers, who have been linked in the past to cases of rape and murder.
Soeun wept as he recalled the beatings he and others endured at the facility, and said he had often had to protect his son from abuse.
He said most of the people arrested ahead of Pchum Ben had been released, and described how the two men who were taken away from the centre had been seriously ill with high fevers and denied medical care for weeks.
“There are no doctors here. If someone is ill, they don’t get a doctor or get sent to hospital unless it’s really serious,” he said. “They were ill when they got here”.
Son Sophal, director of the municipal social affairs department, yesterday denied the allegations.
“Now we have released everyone. There have been no illnesses or deaths,” he said before hanging up the phone.
Staff at the centre declined to comment about the alleged deaths or disclose where the two men had been taken.
But amid official silence, calls have been renewed for abuses at the centre to end.
“These recent deaths highlight the urgency of finding a long-term solution to the untenable practice of detaining persons rounded up in the streets,” said OHCHR’s Lee.
“Towards this end, the UN system in Cambodia, including our office, is consulting widely and bringing together international expertise that can present viable choices that will respect human rights, target assistance programs to those most in need, and address the root causes of homelessness.”
In today’s statement, Licadho says the only way to end the abuse is by closing the facility altogether.
“The well-documented systemic abuse and criminal negligence that takes place within the Prey Speu centre is directly responsible for the deaths of three people within the past 11 months, and yet it remains open,” said Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical coordinator.
“The failure to shut down the centre permanently risks even more deaths of Phnom Penh’s most vulnerable people.”