Press ReleasePunishing the Poor: More Arrests of Street People
Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
July 26, 2009 - LICADHO deplores the authorities' renewed campaign to unlawfully arrest homeless persons, beggars, sex workers and other "undesirables" from the streets of Phnom Penh. In recent days, such arrests have led to women and children being sent to stay in a government social affairs center whose staff include alleged rapists and murderers, and to sex workers who have HIV/AIDS being detained at an NGO shelter where they were denied their life-sustaining antiretroviral medicines.
"Once again, the government is treating poor people who live and work on the streets as though they are criminals," said LICADHO director Naly Pilorge. "This has nothing with to do with actually trying to help these people - it is simply intended to drive them off the streets in order to 'beautify' the city."
Over the past month, dozens of people have been arbitrarily arrested from the streets, particularly in Daun Penh district along the riverside and around Wat Phnom, in night-time sweeps by district security guards or police. More than 100 of the arrested people - mainly the homeless, beggars or scavengers - were sent to the government-run Phnom Penh Social Affairs Center at Prey Speu, on the city outskirts in Chom Chao district. The center has for years been used to illegally detain such people, and appalling abuses including rape and murder have allegedly been committed against detainees by guards there in the past, according to LICADHO investigations.
In 2008, based on eyewitness testimony, LICADHO sent detailed information to the government about abuses at the Prey Speu center, including the alleged beatings to death of at least three detainees by guards. LICADHO provided the names of guards who were allegedly involved in abuses, and requested that they be suspended from their positions pending an official investigation.
At least two and possibly more of the guards implicated in alleged rape and murder at the center in the past remain working there. No proper investigation by the authorities was conducted.
"It is indefensible that, more than a year after the abuses at Prey Speu were exposed, there has been no serious government investigation into the crimes committed there, and at least some of the alleged perpetrators remain working there," said Naly Pilorge.
"The fact that the authorities are still sending women and children to this center, where alleged rapists and murderers continue to work, shows the blatant lack of concern for the welfare of these vulnerable people."
Although, unlike in the past, the people currently being sent to Prey Speu are not being detained in locked rooms, LICADHO believes that many of them stay at the center against their own free will. Having been arbitrarily arrested and delivered to the center, they are offered the choice of staying there "voluntarily" or leaving. However, if they chose to leave, they are not given any transport back to Phnom Penh - they must walk the more than 20km themselves, unless they have money for a motorcycle taxi. (Usually they are penniless, having had their money and any property of any value stolen from them during or after arrest, according to arrestees spoken to by LICADHO.) Threats of violence have also reportedly been used to coerce people to "agree" to stay at the center. Several people interviewed by LICADHO said that they were threatened, while being taken to Prey Speu, that if they left the center, returned to the city and were re-arrested for sleeping on the streets, they would be punished by being beaten severely.
"Previously, people were detained at Prey Speu by being locked up in rooms. Now, they are being detained there by
fear because of threats," said Naly Pilorge.
Sex workers are not among those being sent to Prey Speu currently, unlike in the past, as far as LICADHO is aware. However, they are also being targeted for arrest in the current campaign - reportedly, more than 60 sex workers have been arrested in Daun Penh district so far this month. As well as unlawful arrest, some have been subjected to other abuses including, in an at least one case, detention at an NGO shelter.
On the night of July 19, 12 adult sex workers were arrested by police near Wat Phnom and taken to a local police station where they were locked in a bathroom. Several were kicked or beaten by police, either during arrest or at the police station, according to witnesses. In the morning, after being fingerprinted and photographed, they were taken to the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Department and then to an NGO shelter.
They were locked in a room at the NGO center, according to three of the woman who were later interviewed by LICADHO. They were allowed out of the room at mealtimes but were not permitted to leave the NGO compound. The majority of the women were not released for three days (several were freed earlier), and only after the NGO was informed by LICADHO and other organizations that it had no right to detain them.
Among the 12 sex workers were at least four who have HIV/AIDS and are on anti-retroviral (ARV) medicine. The women, who did not have their drugs with them at time of arrest, missed three days of medicine while detained at the NGO. One of them later told LICADHO that she and the other HIV+ women informed the NGO staff that they needed their ARVs. The reply was that the NGO only had paracetamol and other minor drugs. The woman, aged 25 and who had been on ARVs for six months, said she asked the staff to borrow a phone to call someone to bring her medicine to the center, but was told that this was against the NGO's policy.
ARV medicine must be taken on time and in the correct dosage; missing doses can lead to resistance to the medication to develop, rendering it useless in fighting the HIV virus.
"Denying ARVs to people whose lives rely on them has serious and potentially life-threatening consequences for their health," said Naly Pilorge. "As a result of being arrested by the police and then detained by an NGO, the health of these women was directly threatened."
LICADHO appeals for an immediate halt to the authorities' campaign to arbitrarily arrest sex workers, homeless people and others who live or work on the streets. In addition, it once more calls for the closure of the Prey Speu center and the immediate suspension of staff there against whom allegations of serious crimes have been made, pending a long overdue proper investigation into abuses at the center by authorities.
"Locking up people and abusing them with impunity does nothing to reduce poverty or address the core reasons why they are on the streets in the first place," said Naly Pilorge. "The government must stop punishing the poor."
For more information, please contact:
• Naly Pilorge, LICADHO Director, 012-803-650
• Am Sam Ath, LICADHO Monitoring Supervisor, 012-327-770