After human rights NGO Licadho reported more than 10 deaths at Prey Speu Social Affairs Center last year, the government initially indicated a willingness to shut down the facility. But now the ministry running Prey Speu says it will remain open.
“We will not close [Prey Speu],” said the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY) secretary of state Sok Buntha, the official tasked with reforming the center, on Thursday. “[We will] keep it to save the homeless, otherwise, we will have trouble caring for them and the [Phnom Penh municipality] will have a hard time because after collecting them, they don’t know where to put the homeless!”
Since 2008, Licadho has periodically called for the center to be closed after documenting repeated allegations of human rights violations. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) Cambodia representative Roueida El Hage has declined to say publicly whether she believes the center should be closed. An OHCHR spokesperson said the OHCHR is advising MOSAVY on improving compliance with human rights standards and implementing reforms.
In February, as MOSAVY faced pressure from human rights groups and acknowledged multiple deaths of people detained at the center, MOSAVY spokesperson Touch Channy said that the center would likely close or be phased out of operation. He was quoted in the Khmer Times on February 10 as saying “We will either change it [Prey Speu] into a training center, or close it immediately” and made similar comments to other local media.
These statements echoed previous calls from Prime Minister Hun Sen and UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith in 2016. Both said the center should be closed if necessary improvements were not made. The center involuntarily detains the homeless, sex workers and other marginalized groups swept up in law enforcement raids across Phnom Penh, human rights groups and media have documented for years.
“If there are no more homeless people, it will be closed and we won’t keep the center doing anything,” Channy told CamboJA News last week.
But Channy admitted he could not provide a clear timeline or plan for closing Prey Speu and acknowledged the center continues to hold and in-take more people.
“Now we are reforming the management!” he added. “We will reform it to be better without letting them [homeless people] stay for a long time. Like when they come in, we study their family address by giving them a short stay and then sending them back to their community.”
Channy said that while there were previously around 300 people in the center the number has been reduced to between 80 and 90 people. More than 50 people have been sent to drug addiction and mental health rehabilitation centers, he added.
The OHCHR representative, El Hage, visited Prey Speu on March 16. El Hage was described in government-aligned media Fresh News as saying she “appreciated the concern for victims shown by all stakeholders.”
MOSAVY has proposed turning Prey Speu, described by the government as a “drop-in center,” into a vocational training center, Channy said. Human rights groups and the former UN Special Rapporteur in Cambodia have described the center as a site of arbitrary detention.
An OHCHR spokesperson said in an email that El Hage met with MOSAVY Minister Vong Sauth in February to discuss “how to alleviate the suffering of inmates and provide them with better living and health conditions to avoid human rights violations.”
Cambodia is a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which states that signatories “shall undertake to prevent…acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment…”
“Details of discussions on compliance with international norms could not be disclosed until assessment is made considering these principles,” an OHCHR spokesperson said.
MOSAVY has since established a task force, led by secretary of state Buntha, “to mobilize efforts and reduce overcrowding, implement a triage system, identify family members of the most vulnerable inmates (the homeless), and address health conditions,” the OHCHR spokesperson said.
MOSAVY and the OHCHR spokesperson also said that MOSAVY is developing “standard operating procedures” for Prey Speu, which has been in operation since 2004.
In a 2016 report, Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith urged for “the release of those persons being held against their will [at Prey Speu] and the establishment of a properly equipped and funded social affairs center capable of providing appropriate assistance to persons claiming need.”
Three years later, she told the Phnom Penh Post that the center should be closed: “As currently set up, the center continues to operate as a place of arbitrary detention and should be closed.”
Smith completed her term as Special Rapporteur in Cambodia in March 2021.
Regarding Smith’s previous statements, the OHCHR spokesperson said that these views “don’t necessarily represent the views of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who has a separate mandate.” The OHCHR spokesperson would not say what the views of the OHCHR were on the future of Prey Speu.
“It is the prerogative of the Government to decide on the center’s operations,” the spokesperson added.
Hy Pru, spokesperson of the National Committee Against Torture (NCAT), tasked with complying with the UN convention, said that following an investigation in December 2022 the NCAT did not find any evidence of torture or violence that led to deaths at Prey Speu. He said that the deaths of the homeless people at the center are due to chronic disease and occurred at a hospital or on the way to the hospital.
“We need to know that this shelter is a place full of many kinds of homeless people, some are helpless, and some are mentally ill, which completely affects their ability and health,” Pru said. “So that means most of them are already sick.”
Licadho’s December report said that two people died after falling ill at the center in August 2022, were not provided with adequate care and “were left on the floor of detention rooms, where they eventually died in front of other detainees.” The report also claimed more than 10 detainees had died since July.
Licadho’s Outreach Director Naly Pilorge said that efforts to improve the center would likely not be sufficient to prevent future rights abuses.
“Prey Speu is not a drop-in center, nor is it a vocational training facility — it is an arbitrary detention compound that serves to remove Phnom Penh’s most marginalized and at-risk citizens from the streets of the capital and place them out of sight, while denying them their rights to adequate food and medical care,” Pilorge said.
“As the further deaths in 2022 showed, these attempts at ‘reform’ have failed,” she added. “The only way forward is to close Prey Speu.”
(Additional reporting by Jack Brook)