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CAMBODIA: ‘Abuse Rampant in Drug Detention Centres’ – Human Rights Watch

Joel Chong

BANGKOK, Jan 25 2010 (IPS) - A staff member “would use the cable to beat people. On each whip, the person’s skin would come off and stick on the cable,” said M’noh*, 16, of his detention in Choam Chao Youth Rehabilitation Centre, a government-run facility for drug dependents in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

“If anyone tried to escape, he would be punished… some people managed to escape, some didn’t. Most who were punished for escaping would be beaten unconscious. Beatings like this happened everyday,” he added.

M’noh is just one of the 53 Cambodians interviewed by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) for its 93-page report ‘Skin on the Cable’, launched Monday in this Thai capital.

Between February and July 2009, the HRW documented extensive physical and sexual abuse at government-owned detention centres across Cambodia. There detainees are beaten, raped, forced to donate blood and subjected to other forms of abuse such as “rolling like a barrel” across a field of stones and being chained while standing in the sun.

“Individuals in these centres are not being treated or rehabilitated; they are being illegally detained and often tortured,” said Joseph Amon, director of the Health and Human Rights division at HRW.

The HRW has tried but failed to get the government’s side on the conditions of the centres.

Cambodia’s National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) reported that there were 5,896 drug abusers in the country in 2008. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, on the other hand, estimates that four percent of the population uses drugs, which translates to approximately 600,000 of the South-east Asian country’s approximately 15 million population.

The NACD said the centres held 2,382 detainees in 2008, a 40 percent jump from 1,719 in 2007. Some 24 percent, or 563, of those in the centres operating in 2008 consisted of children ages 18 and below while 104 (or 4 percent) were below 15.

Such detention centres have existed in Cambodia officially since 2006, while many have been around since before then, said Amon.

Out of the 11 officially listed drug detention centres in the country, five are run by the military, two by the civilian police, three by the Ministry of Social Affairs, and one directly by the Phnom Penh municipality. Each follows the same arduous physical routines and observes a ‘policy’ of abuse that ranges from physical to sexual, said Amon

According to the HRW report and other Cambodian non-governmental agencies such as the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), drug users are frequently arrested through regular police sweeps in the capital, where police arrest persons considered “undesirable” in the streets.

In a May 2009 issue of ‘The Cambodia Daily’ the deputy governor of one of Phnom Penh’s districts was quoted as saying that those picked up by the police “make the city dirty. We collected them in order to clean the city.”

Such sweeps often occur in advance of important national holidays and international meetings in the city. According to Cambodia’s National Drug Control Authority, 38 percent of the detainees in the detention centres were arrested during police sweeps.

“They never saw a lawyer, they never saw a judge, there was never any formal charge brought against them,” said Amon. “Some of them abused drugs and some of them did not. They were transferred to drug detention centres because they looked like drug users.” He cited the case of someone “who was told that his test result was negative but nonetheless he was admitted to the detention centre.”

Some are fortunate enough to bribe their way out of their arrest, some are not, he noted.

Others interviewed for the report said they were turned in by their family members, who paid up to 200 U.S. dollars for their arrest and a “treatment fee” of 50 dollars a month during their detention – a clear violation of the national drug law that says the state shall bear the costs of drug treatment in government facilities.

“These fees are illegal,” said Amon. He added that family members are told that these are treatment centres, which they turn to because there is no other community-based facility where drug abusers can seek treatment voluntarily.

Once they are in the centres, detainees are forced to undergo a range of physical activities, including forced military drills that are meant to “sweat” out the drugs from the detainees’ bodies.

But some activities appeared productive, including cutting grass and making handicrafts. Yet, some of the work imposed on the detainees, according to Amon, was also intended to directly benefit the staff members, including guards. The detainees, for example, are made to work in the latter’s homes.

Neither medicine nor medical tests are administered to the detainees as treatment for their addiction, said Amon. “[The drug detention centres are] run not by health professionals but by police and the military… There is no medical evaluation going in … there is no medical evaluation coming out,” he added. The World Health Organisation’s office in Cambodia pegged the relapse rate among individuals leaving the drug detention centres at 100 percent.

HRW also said a large number of detainees had reported being fed with rotten or insect-ridden food and showing symptoms of diseases consistent with nutritional deficiencies.

Detainees are also exposed to a range of physical and sexual abuse by the guards.

“Beautiful and nice women were taken away to be raped,” recounted Lolok, a homeless woman who was detained in a centre in Prey Speu, located on the outskirts of the capital.

Then the girls, who were about 19 or 20 years old, disappeared, she said. “I saw two women taken away from my room…. At one point, she overheard a guard boasting to another guard about how he raped a young female detainee before releasing her.

Others, mostly minors, secured their release after being coerced into donating blood, intended for use in medical facilities.

Duongchem, another detainee, said young detainees kids who donated blood did so because they were scared of being beaten up by a staff member who used electrical wire. “He did not call [people to donate], but he stood behind the kids. The kids were so nervous… The rest were scared, and this is why they donated blood,” said the detainee.

In June 2008, LICADHO managed to gain entry into a similar detention centre in Koh Kor run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. There they found men, women, and children locked in rooms together, including a nine-month-pregnant woman with her four-year-old child.

Koh Kor is an island in the Saang district of the Kandal province, some 25 kilometres from Phnom Penh.

LICADHO also reported seeing two gravely ill detainees in the centre, one of whom was comatose. Others manifested serious mental problems. Subsequent interviews with detainees revealed that there were no medical facilities in the centre nor was medical attention provided for the sick detainees.

“The facts are clear and undeniable,” said LICADHO director Naly Pilorge in 2008. “These are not rehabilitation or education centers – they are prison camps where people, who have not been charged with committing any crime, are detained illegally in abominable conditions.”

Photos of the Koh Kor centre were sent to the Cambodian government. A week after, in an ironic twist of events, nearly all detainees from the Koh Kor centre were abruptly released and loaded onto trucks, which brought to Phnom Penh and dumped on roadsides, reported LICADHO.

The Cambodian government subsequently issued a statement maintaining that people had stayed at the centres “on a voluntary basis” to receive vocational training and other services. It also assured human rights and other civil society groups that there was no reason for concern.

LICADHO was eventually permitted to enter another detention centre in Prey Speu village, 11km southwest of Phnom Penh, in November 2008. There they found messages scrawled by former detainees onto the walls of their rooms. These included “Detained in a miserable prison” and “Pity me, help me.”

One detainee wrote of living “in terror [and] under oppression” there. Another etched the words “Hell life” in English into a wall. Rear windows in the rooms were also nailed shut.

“The walls of Prey Speu speak very clearly about what has happened there for years – human beings, unlawfully arrested from the streets, have been locked up like animals in appalling conditions,” said LICADHO’s Pilorge. “The evidence is irrefutable and these victims’ voices deserve to finally be heard.”

*The names of all individuals cited in the Human Rights Watch report have been changed.

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