(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should immediately release more than 100 people arbitrarily detained in Phnom Penh as part of the city’s preparation for major public ceremonies, Human Rights Watch said today. The government marked the death of longtime ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and Senate President Chea Sim and the Queen Mother’s birthday on the week of June 15, 2015.

The entrance to the government Social Affairs center, Prey Speu, near Phnom Penh.

© 2010 Arantxa Cedillo

In the course of preparations, police rounded up street children, homeless people, drug users, sex workers, people with a mental illness, and others deemed “socially undesirable,” and sent them to the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center and other detention centers outside the city.

“Cambodian holidays and ceremonies should not be ‘celebrated’ with the arbitrary arrests of the country’s most vulnerable people,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Those thrown without charge into misnamed ‘opportunity centers’ should be immediately released.”

Across Cambodia, authorities routinely detain people deemed undesirable in a haphazard system of detention centers around the country ostensibly for “social rehabilitation” or “drug treatment.” Cambodia’s donors and other governments should publicly denounce the practice of mass arbitrary arrests prior to national holidays and other public events.

Cambodian holidays and ceremonies should not be 'celebrated' with the arbitrary arrests of the country’s most vulnerable people. Those thrown without charge into misnamed 'opportunity centers' should be immediately released.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia director

The round-ups in Phnom Penh have been accompanied by extortion, beatings, and sexual abuse by police and other authorities. Police picked up one 30-year-old woman who had traveled to Phnom Penh with her 1-year-old daughter for a meningitis vaccine while she sat outside the Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital.

More than 100 people – including children between 2-months- and 15-years-old – are detained at the notorious Prey Speu center, crammed into two cement rooms approximately 5-by-5 meters. The annual report of Phnom Penh’s Social Affairs Department reported that 445 of the 539 homeless people picked up in 2014 were detained in Prey Speu.

Prey Speu has been linked to credible reports of torture, rape, and deaths in custody. In November 2014, a man who had been detained in advance of the annual water festival died while in custody there. There was no formal investigation into his death.

In addition to the Prey Speu center, the Ministry of Social Affairs also has authority for the Phnom Bak center in Sisaphon town and a drug detention center on a military base in Koh Kong town which it jointly manages with the military. There are a further six drug detention centers across the country that hold at least 2,000 people in violation of their due process rights every year.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented how guards and other staff at drug detention centers 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 pain. Detainees from some centers have been forced to work on construction sites, including in at least one instance helping to build a hotel.

“Keeping detention centers like Prey Speu open is an endless invitation to the authorities to violate the basic rights of people deemed ‘undesirable,’” Robertson said. “The government should close these centers immediately and support genuinely voluntary services to assist marginalized Cambodians.”