(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities unlawfully detain hundreds of drug users and others deemed “undesirable” in centers where they face torture, sexual violence, and forced labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch called for the immediate closure of the country’s eight detention centers that are supposedly for drug dependency treatment.
The 55-page report, “‘They Treat Us Like Animals’: Mistreatment of Drug Users and ‘Undesirables’ in Cambodia’s Drug Detention Centers,” documents the experiences of people recently confined in the centers, who described being thrashed with rubber water hoses and hit with sticks or branches. Some described being punished with exercises intended to cause intense physical pain and humiliation, such as crawling along stony ground or standing in septic water pits. Former female detainees described rape and other sexual abuse by male guards. Many detainees said they were forced to work unpaid in the centers – and in some cases, on construction sites – and those who refused were beaten.
“The only ‘treatment’ people in Cambodia’s drug detention centers receive is being beaten, bruised, and forced to work,” said Joseph Amon, health and human rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The government uses these centers as dumping grounds for beggars, sex workers, street children, and other ‘undesirables,’ often in advance of high-profile visits by foreign dignitaries.”
The report is based on Human Rights Watch interviews with 33 people previously held in drug detention centers in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Koh Kong, and the capital, Phnom Penh. Along with drug users, authorities also lock up homeless people in the centers, as well as beggars, street children, sex workers, and people with disabilities. The centers are run by the Cambodian military, gendarmerie, police, Social Affairs Ministry, and municipal authorities.
“The most difficult thing is the beatings,” said “Pram,” a man in his 20s who was detained in the Orgkas Khnom center just outside of Phnom Penh for more than three months in 2013. “They happen every other day.”
People interviewed said they saw unaccompanied children as young as 6 in the detention centers. The children were held in the same rooms as adults, forced to perform exhausting physical exercises and military-like drills, chained, and beaten.
“The government admits that 10 percent of those held in the centers are children under 18,” Amon said. “Children who use drugs or who live on the streets should be protected from harm, not locked up, beaten, and abused.”
The report follows a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “Skin on the Cable” that resulted in national and international attention to the issue of compulsory drug dependency “treatment” centers in the country. Following that report, the United Nations and donor agencies condemned the lack of due process and abusive treatment in centers in Cambodia and the region, while Cambodian government officials largely sought to dismiss the report as “untrue.”
In March 2012, 12 United Nations agencies issued a joint statement on drug detention centers that called on countries with these centers “to close them without delay and to release the individuals detained.” Cambodian authorities have not publicly responded to this call, investigated reports of torture and other abuses occurring in the centers, or prosecuted anyone for alleged criminal offenses. Since 2010 three drug detention centers have closed, yet the overall number of men, women, and children detained each year, approximately 2,200, remains constant.
The Cambodian government has also announced a plan to construct a large national drug treatment center in Preah Sihanouk province and approached Vietnam to finance the construction. Vietnamese drug detention centers hold individuals for longer periods and include forced labor as an official component of drug dependency “treatment,” raising concerns about the possible expanded influence of Vietnam that could come with financial assistance for drug detention center construction in Cambodia.
The Cambodian government should conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, and forced labor in its drug detention centers, Human Rights Watch said. In line with the 2012 UN agency statement, everyone detained in the centers should immediately be released and all the centers closed. The government should replace the centers with expanded access to voluntary, community-based drug treatment.
“Inside Cambodia’s drug detention centers, arbitrary detention, forced labor, and physical and sexual abuse are carried out with impunity” Amon said. “These centers are ineffective, unjust, and violate human rights. They should be immediately closed and the men, women, and children being held within them released without delay.”