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In Cambodia, brush back against street sweeps

Human Rights Watch report underlines Cambodia’s draconian treatment of urban underbelly.

This government-run rehabilitation center just outside Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh, was used to detain people rounded up from the street. It was closed in 2008 after rights groups and the U.N. raised concerns about the legality of holding people there and the quality of the facilities. (Licadho)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — At night in Cambodia’s capital, parks once populated by sex workers fell silent. Streets and abandoned lots in the center of Phnom Penh where drug addicts and homeless slept lay empty. The city’s underbelly had been washed away.

Then reports of abuse emerged. Sex workers said police had detained them for weeks, taking the cash they had on hand and raping them — even those who protested by saying they had HIV. There were accounts of government facilities where drug users, street kids and the mentally ill were beaten and starved. Rights workers reported a security crisis for the groups they served, and a facility was shut down after they and the U.N. raised concerns.

That was more than a year ago and the uproar has since eased. Now, a new report has put the government’s street sweep campaign front and center again.

In a report released Jan. 25, Human Rights Watch describes a climate of “sadistic violence” in the government’s drug rehabilitation centers. Drug users face beatings and arduous forced labor, while being deprived of effective treatment for their addiction, the watchdog group says.

“He had three kinds of cable … he would ask you which one you prefer. On each whip the skin would come off and stick to the cable,” the report quotes a 16-year-old identified as M’noh as saying.

In its own study, the World Health Organization found a nearly 100 percent relapse rate in people coming out of the government’s drug rehabilitation facilities. “This is a common approach globally,” says Graham Shaw, a technical adviser for the World Health Organization in Cambodia. “It’s cheap and easy and it allows the government to show the public that it’s responding to drug dependence problems amongst the population, but it doesn’t provide a solution.”

The facilities are presided over by a mix of authorities, including local government offices, the Social Affairs Ministry as well as civilian and military police. Human Rights Watch says officials running the rehabilitation centers profited by renting out detainees as laborers and by selling blood they forced detainees to donate. More than 2,000 people were detained in 11 of these facilities throughout the country in 2008, the vast majority involuntarily, according to the group.

“The real motivations for Cambodia’s drug detention centers appear to be a combination of social control, punishment for perceived moral failure of drug use and profit,” says the report.

The report sheds light on the government’s controversial use of holding centers for drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars — who are often rounded up before national holidays and visits by foreign dignitaries, when the capital is on display. Rights groups have long called for the closure of such facilities, citing frequent allegations of violence and forced detention, and questioned the effectiveness of the treatment programs they supposedly offer.