(New York) – The Cambodian government should promptly close all centers arbitrarily detaining people outside the criminal justice system, Licadho and Human Rights Watch said today. The abusive nature of these centers was highlighted by the death on November 26, 2014, of a man who was arbitrarily detained and denied medical treatment at the Prey Speu center outside Phnom Penh.

“Keeping Cambodia’s detention centers open is an endless invitation to the authorities to violate the human rights of people deemed ‘undesirable,’” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho. “The systematic abuse of Cambodia’s most vulnerable people occurs at these centers and the government should close them immediately.”

Around November 2, authorities brought a man named Phea to Prey Speu’s Po Senchey Vocational Training Center, according to a center official and other witnesses. Phea had been picked up during “sweeps” by security forces in Phnom Penh to clear homeless people and others considered “undesirable” off the streets prior to Cambodia’s traditional Water Festival being held on November 5-7. The sweeps – part of an operation that also aimed to deter anti-government protests during the holiday – were carried out by police, para-police “public order” contingents, and heavily-armed gendarmes acting on orders from Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong. The governor, through the municipal Department of Social Affairs, Veteran, and Youth Rehabilitation, has authority over the Prey Speu facility.

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. Sources said that during his weeks-long detention, the center staff made no effort to provide him medical treatment and refused to take him elsewhere for treatment. He died on the morning of November 26, after which his body was taken for immediate cremation at a Buddhist temple, Wat Sopheakhuon. Police failed to launch any proper investigation into his death.

The United Nations Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment provides that medical care and treatment shall be provided to detainees whenever necessary and free of charge. Whenever a person dies in detention, “an inquiry into the cause of death … shall be held by a judicial or other authority.” In addition, “[t]he findings of such inquiry … shall be made available upon request.”

The poor conditions at the Prey Speu center resulting in Phea’s death are faced by other detainees at the facility, Licadho and Human Rights Watch said. Approximately 30 other people were in Prey Speu at the time of Phea’s death. These include two small children who were with their physically ill mother, and a third small child who was with his or her father, in violation of international law prohibitions against the arbitrary detention of children. All are being held without charge or trial. A late-term pregnant woman detained at the center escaped when she believed she was going into labor, fleeing with a transgender person who was also being held, according to one source.

Long history of center abuses
Licadho, Human Rights Watch, and other human rights organizations have documented torture and systematic cruel and inhumane treatment, as well as rapes, killings, and other abuses at the Prey Speu center since it became operational in 2004. In late 2008, following public revelation of abuses at Prey Speu and other centers run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, government authorities claimed that Prey Speu had stopped arbitrarily detaining people. While there were initial indications that some people were released and others held for shorter periods, in more recent years the Prey Speu center has reverted to detaining people against their will for weeks and sometimes months.

Across Cambodia, authorities routinely detain alleged drug users, homeless people, “street” children, sex workers, and people perceived to have disabilities in a haphazard system of detention centers around the country. Some of those detention centers are ostensibly for drug treatment, while others are ostensibly for “social rehabilitation.” In addition to Prey Speu, the Ministry of Social Affairs also has authority for the Phnom Bak center in Sisophon town, Banteay Meanchey province, and jointly manages a drug detention center with the military on a military base in Koh Kong town, Koh Kong province. There are a further six drug detention centers across the country that each year hold at least 2,000 people without due process.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how guards and other staff whip detainees with rubber water hoses, beat them with bamboo sticks or palm fronds, shock them with electric batons, sexually abuse them, and punish them with physical exercises intended to cause intense physical pain. Detainees from some centers have been forced to work on construction sites, including in at least one instance to help build a hotel.

Authorities hold out the prospect of on-site treatment by nongovernmental organizations of a small number of mentally-ill “residents” to justify Prey Speu’s continued existence. There is no reason why this treatment cannot be provided on a voluntary basis, outside the confines of a center in which systemic abuses occur and that has proved stubbornly resistant to reform, Licadho and Human Rights Watch said. Homeless and other marginalized people who remain there “voluntarily” often do so because they fear being harmed on the streets by the security forces and believe there are no voluntary, community-based services available to them.

“Cambodian authorities need to admit that it’s impossible to transform Prey Speu and similar centers into institutions that respect human rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The latest death at Prey Speu should be the last straw for donors, UN agencies, and embassies, who should together demand Prey Speu be shuttered, and commit to back genuinely voluntary services to assist marginalized Cambodians.”