‘Undesirables’ are swept from the streets before being detained without trial, say human rights groups
The Prey Speu facility, 12 miles from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, is officially described as a “social affairs centre” offering education and healthcare to vulnerable people.
But human rights groups and former inmates say the centre is an illegal, clandestine prison, where people deemed “undesirable” by the government – usually drug users, sex workers and the homeless – are held for months without charge.
Men, women and children are housed together in a single building and are regularly beaten with planks, whipped with wires or threatened with weapons, according to witnesses.
It is alleged that guards have beaten three detainees to death and gang-rapes by the same body of men are reportedly common.
The UN’s own Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has described the conditions at Prey Speu as “appalling” with people “illegally confined and subject to a variety of abuses of power by the staff that included sub-humane conditions of detention, extortion, beating, rape, sometimes resulting in death and suicide”.
But the department that runs Prey Speu still gets money directly from the UN’s children’s fund, Unicef and the centre is also supported by several international NGOs.
Sok Chandara (not his real name) was picked up off the streets of the capital and taken to Prey Speu, “they said because it looked bad for the city to have people sleeping on the streets”. While police told him he was under arrest, he was never charged with an offence nor brought to court.
He was held with more than 100 men, women and children in a bare room and allowed out for just an hour a day. Some inmates were violent and abusive while others were seriously ill or injured.
Detainees were forced to go to the toilet in a bucket and medical care was irregular. Drinking water came from a fetid pond in which untreated sewage was emptied. Inmates were expected to bathe and wash their clothes in the same pond.
“It was like a hell. Many people were sick, people had diarrhoea, stomach aches because they were drinking dirty water, and there were no doctors,” Sok said.
Prey Speu has a daily food budget of 3,000 riels (47p) for each detainee. Generally, they are fed a watery rice gruel in a plastic bag twice a day.
Violence was a daily occurrence, Sok said. A guard beat him with a plank when he intervened to stop the guard hitting another man. “Sometimes, the guards just open the doors and come in and just beat people up, for no reason. They know no one can complain about the way they are being treated.”
According to the Cambodian human rights advocacy group LICADHO, three Prey Speu detainees have been beaten to death in front of other inmates.
Another five detainees have killed themselves, including two women who had been separated from their children.
Sok escaped by jumping over a wall and fleeing through rice paddies. He is still homeless, and fears being re-arrested and sent back. “Only the people who are locked up there know how bad it is, how scary it is. It doesn’t help people.”
The usual way out of Prey Speu is for detainees or their families to bribe the guards with sums from $50 to $200 (£32 to £125).
Visiting Prey Speu, the Guardian saw about 100 detainees being allowed out of the main building. There was no separation of men and women and most of the detainees were barefoot. At least 20 were children, some as young as four.
Guards at three-metre gates said the facility was a voluntary welfare centre and detainees were free to leave whenever they wanted. Asked why the gates were padlocked, guards said it was to keep people out.
Reports by Human Rights Watch document numerous rapes by guards and police there.
One sex worker told HRW she was raped by five police officers on her first night in detention, and by six officers the next evening. When she resisted, she was beaten.
Elaine Pearson, HRW’s Asia division deputy director, said the Cambodian government and donors had failed to act to close Prey Speu despite overwhelming evidence of abuse. “For years, there have been credible reports of rape, beatings and even deaths in custody by guards at Prey Speu, but nothing has been done to hold these abusers to account.”
She said international funding for the ministry of social affairs must be withdrawn.
The OHCHR still funds Cambodia’s transcultural psychosocial organisation to conduct psychological assessments in the centre. Mental health workers find many inmates are severely depressed and some are suffering psychosis, the organisation’s executive director, Dr Chhim Sotheara, said.
In July, Unicef called a meeting of concerned parties where international donors outlined the support they were providing to Prey Speu.
Richard Bridle, Unicef’s country director for Cambodia, declined an interview with the Guardian.
But in a statement Unicef said that it “technically and financially supports the ministry of social affairs, veterans and youth rehabilitation (MoSAVY) and related institutions to regulate, oversee and monitor child welfare and ensure provision of social and child protection”.
Last year, Unicef gave £390,000 to the ministry of social affairs. When similar criticisms of the Choam Chao youth rehabilitation centre emerged this year, Unicef withdrew £17,750 in funding and the centre immediately closed.
But Unicef says no direct assistance is given to Prey Speu.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, spent two days in Cambodia this week. During a brief press conference in Bangkok in advance of the visit, the Guardian submitted a question to Ban about the UN’s role in supporting the centres, but the request was rejected.
Cambodia’s ministry of social affairs has previously denied all allegations of abuse, saying that centres such as Prey Speu offer rehabilitation and vocational training. It defends its policy of “street sweeps” – removing beggars, the homeless and sex workers from the streets of the capital – saying they “provoke public disorder and affect [the] dignity and morality of Cambodian society”.