Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday seemingly suggested it was time to shutter the notorious Prey Speu detention centre, a move long called for by NGOs but dismissed as a “recommendation” yesterday by city officials.
During a speech on Koh Pich ahead of International Children’s Day, the premier condemned the Ministry of Social Affairs and Phnom Penh City Hall for a lack of reform, saying the constant critiques of the centre “polluted” the government’s human rights efforts.
“If it is to be closed, close it … there is no need to keep it open. If you lack capacity to manage or control even the small centre, what more could you do?” he said. “So I request to stop it, because it has been four to five years and it is always troublesome, there are problems nonstop for that centre; it is time to stop it. Close it.”
Prey Speu has long been denounced by rights groups for a litany of abuses. In October of last year, two people died at the centre, which serves as a holding facility for the homeless, drug addicts and others detained during street sweeps of the capital.
But government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the prime minister’s words were merely a “recommendation” for the Ministry of Social Affairs to investigate, which was echoed by Mean Chanyada, spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall.
“I want to clarify that Prey Speu will not be closed; we will keep taking homeless and beggars at Prey Speu in Phnom Penh. It is a centre for education and training,” Chanyada said. “The prime minister just tells us to check; if it does not operate well, then close it. But if the operation is normal, with some weakness, we will fix it or reform it.”
Despite Chanyada’s assurances, however, human rights activists yesterday said the centre was better off closed.
Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator at rights group Licadho, welcomed the premier’s comments, and maintained the centre’s dire conditions would not improve over time.
“There is a culture of abuse and rape,” he said. “When people get sick, they are not given proper medical care.”
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said the organisation “would applaud the closure of Prey Speu”.
“The main problem at Prey Speu is the involuntary nature of the stays, with persons brought there only because of their appearance. The inadequacy of the facilities is equally worrying,” she said via email.
According to the OHCHR, 331 people were detained at the centre as of last week. Lee said a number of recommendations for the centre – including a moratorium on street sweeps, thorough assessment of conditions and a switch to a voluntary admissions system – were developed six months ago but had “yet to be implemented”.
She added that several UN agencies and NGOs were “ready to help to create a true drop-in centre downtown, with adequate facilities and services”.
Florence Chatot, technical coordinator from Mith Samlanh, a program under Friends International that works to rehabilitate the homeless, cautioned against an immediate closure without giving detainees plans and options.
“In the long term, it will be good . . . we would prefer not to [work through] the centre, so we can do our work in the street as we do usually, but the centre is there and we cope with the situation,” she said. “There might be no rush in closing, because all those people need a plan . . . to be reintegrated. We are here for this, but of course it takes time.”