Cambodia Drug Detention Centers Rife With Abuse

Cambodian authorities illegally imprison hundreds of drug users and other "undesirables" in detention centers where they don't get drug treatment but instead face torture, sexual abuse, and forced labor, Human Rights Watch charged in a report released Sunday. The rights group called for the centers to be closed immediately.

Cambodian "intervention" truck rounding up drug users and other "undesirables" in Phnom Penh. (hrw.org)
The 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 identified eight of the drug detention centers and is based on interviews with 33 people who had been held in them. It wasn't just drug users, either. According to the report, authorities also use the drug detention centers to hold homeless people, beggars, street children, sex workers, and people with disabilities.

People interviewed said they saw unaccompanied children as young as six 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% 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."

Human Rights Watch issued a similar report on drug detention center abuses in 2010, Skin on the Cable, which focused 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."

A dozen UN agencies issued a joint statement last year calling on countries with such centers "to close them without delay and release the individuals detained," but Cambodian authorities have not responded to that call, nor have they investigated or prosecuted anyone over the reports of torture and abuse at the centers.

"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."

Cambodia
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