CHILDREN held at a controversial government-run rehabilitation centre in Phnom Penh are not subjected to systematic and violent abuse, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, which for the first time has rejected allegations raised by a rights watchdog earlier this year.
Richard Bridle, UNICEF’s representative in Cambodia, said he now believes Human Rights Watch has erred in alleging abuse at the Youth Rehabilitation Centre in Choam Chao commune, which is run by the Ministry of Social Affairs.
In a January report, HRW said the facility, which UNICEF supported with US$28,440 in funding last year, is one of 11 government-run rehabilitation centres across the country in which detainees face beatings and forced detention.
“There is no culture of violence there,” Bridle said in an interview Thursday. “There is an error in [HRW’s] findings.”
Bridle said UNICEF workers visited the centre last week and were allowed unfettered access to the 82 children held there.
“When you meet brutalised kids, you can see there is this brutalisation going on. These were not brutalised kids,” Bridle said. “They were engaging. They sought out conversation. They wanted to joke with us.”
Bridle said UNICEF had based its conclusion on staff observations, including those from the visit last week; a Ministry of Social Affairs investigation – requested by UNICEF following the release of the HRW report – that he said found no evidence of abuse; and reports from local NGOs that provide services at the facility.
An official with Mith Samlanh, an NGO for street children that visits the centre at least twice a week, said he also does not believe there is evidence to support claims that the children are abused.
“In the past, that may have happened,” said Programme Manager Man Phally. “If someone breaks the rules and runs away, if they come back maybe they have consequences like being beaten up. But that happened a very long time ago.”
Man Phally said that if children were suffering from abuse, they would likely report the violence to Mith Samlanh staff members, who visit the centre to provide basic medical care, vocational training in areas such as traditional music and haircutting, as well as antidrug programmes.
“We work there almost every week. So we know what happens also, even though we’re not there 24 hours a day. This is our opinion. There is no evidence” of violence, he said.
‘Everybody got beaten’
The HRW report was based largely on interviews with drug users who said they had been detained in one or more of Cambodia’s rehabilitation centres, which are run by a range of authorities, including civilian and military police, the Phnom Penh Municipality and the Ministry of Social Affairs. Various officials have denied abuse allegations, and Prime Minister Hun Sen last week blasted rights groups for criticising the facilities.
Alleged abuses in Choam Chao figured prominently in the HRW report, with former detainees telling of harsh treatment and violence that some characterised as “torture”. Those interviewed in the report described witnessing guards – actually fellow inmates appointed by centre staff members – whipping detainees with electrical wire, forcing captured escapees to roll in gravel until they bled and administering routine beatings for perceived indiscretions.
In interviews with the Post this weekend, people who said they were detained reported experiencing similar violence.
One 21-year-old man, who said he takes yama, a smokeable amphetamine, every day, reported that he had been detained seven times at a facility he identified as Choam Chao. He said he did not recall the dates of his confinements, but that the last occurred when he was 20.
“They kicked me in the chest. They kicked me in the stomach. Everybody got beaten,” said the man, who the Post is not naming to protect him from potential reprisals.
The 21-year-old described a system in which guards called chhmar, or cats, were tasked with keeping newer detainees in line.
He said he was beaten on a regular basis for quarrelling with other detainees, for smoking cigarettes and for complaining about the food.
“The cats have the rice. They can do anything they want,” he said. “After the meal, they locked us inside the room and started beating.... They used sticks. They unlocked the door, entered and started beating. They punched me in the face. They smashed my head against the wall.”
In his last detainment, the man was forced to expose his back while a guard lashed him using electrical wires that had been twisted into a whip, he said.
“They beat me three times with the cable in the same place,” he said. “You could see the flesh come out. It was like pieces of flesh from a fish.”
During the interview, the man lifted up his shirt to expose a sinewy scar that reached across his right shoulder blade.
A 17-year-old boy interviewed this weekend said he was released from a facility he referred to as Choam Chao last month. The boy said the guards, whom he also called chhmar, beat him immediately after he arrived at the centre.
“They said, ‘Don’t tell the staff’. You live in fear of being beaten more,” the boy said, showing small scars on his arms, back and legs, wounds he said were caused by belt buckles and sticks.
Occasionally, medical workers who identified themselves as working with Mith Samlanh would treat his injuries, the boy said.
“They asked me what happened,” he said, pointing at a scar on his arm, which he said was gashed after he was hit with a belt buckle. “I just told them that I fell. I just lied. I was afraid the boss will beat me further.”
‘I’m sure there is a mistake’
UNICEF, however, is questioning the HRW report’s findings on the Choam Chao centre, which the agency sees as a voluntary facility that offers an alternative to prison for children in trouble with the law.
UNICEF’s Bridle suggested that interviewees may have reported abuse that happened years before the agency’s involvement with the centre, which began in 2006, or that they may have confused the facility for Prey Speu, a separate social affairs centre that has long been criticised by rights groups and is located a few kilometres away in the same commune.
“I’m sure there is a mistake that has been made here,” Bridle said. “I’m not saying HRW is incorrect in all of the major findings of this report. I’m saying they made a mistake about this centre.”
However, Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, said his organisation stands by the report’s findings on Choam Chao, which he said were based on a researcher’s interviews with 17 people claiming to have been held at the centre within the last three years.
“There is really no way to confuse Choam Chao and Prey Speu. The children we interviewed understood the difference. We have investigated both centres and understand the difference,” Amon said in an emailed statement.
“The suggestion that the abuses we describe at Choam Chao YRC really took place at Prey Speu is just a cynical and sad attempt at avoiding responsibility and accountability.”