There have been at least 10 alleged deaths at a so-called vocational center run by the government, said a rights group, which called for immediate closure of the facility.
The Prey Speu center is located in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao II commune and is pegged as a vocation center that purports to provide life skills training, but has instead been used for the extrajudicial detention of marginalized groups, including the homeless, drug users and sex workers. Occasionally the government has even detained protesters at the center.
Human rights NGO Licadho alleged on Wednesday that at least 10 deaths had taken place at the center in July and August, relying on eyewitness testimonies from inside the center and at a local pagoda.
The rights group said in a statement that two people had died at Prey Speu in August after they fell sick and didn’t get adequate medical care. It added that “evidence” pointed to at least 10 deaths over a two-month period, but would not elaborate beyond saying it was based upon eyewitness accounts.
The group called for the immediate closure of the facility to “put an end to the horrors faced by the people detained there.”
VOD reporters visited the center Wednesday morning and asked to enter the facility and meet the director about the allegations made by Licadho. A security guard entered the vocational center, which has high walls reinforced with metal sheeting and barbed wire.
Three men, including the same guard, returned and without opening the gates proceeded to deny the allegations. One of the men did most of the talking and would only say that he was a staff member at the center.
“There were no deaths in July and August,” he said. “There are no deaths this year.”
He said the center had an ambulance and health center with doctors for sick inmates. The three then walked away from the gate and did not respond to any other questions.
VOD could not reach staff at the center on two phone numbers listed outside the facility.
Reporters also visited Wat Prey Speu, which is little more than a kilometer from the facility. A monk said he was unaware if inmates from the center had been cremated there and achar, or laymen who perform funerals, said they had not cremated anyone from the center.
“There are no bodies here from the Prey Speu center,” one of them said. They also claimed that they heard bodies had been taken to Wat Russei Saeng, but an achar there said the cremation furnace was out of order for the last six months.
Am Sam Ath, the operations director at Licadho, said the NGO could not reveal its sources but had sufficient evidence to make the claims.
“We have witnesses seeing what happened inside the center and also at the pagoda where the bodies were sent to be cremated,” said Sam Ath.
He said they knew the names and genders of the inmates who allegedly died, but could not find their families because some were homeless.
Toch Channy, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Social Affairs, said he had just received the information from other journalists but had yet to look into it.
“The ministry is now preparing a team to go check out at the center to see if anything happened or if what has been released in the report is true. We will wait for the information from the [officials] and will take action accordingly.”
According to Channy, there has been significant improvement inside the center recently as there have been no reports of physical abuse at the facility.
Phnom Penh officials and police routinely detain people living on the streets, drug users and sex workers and send them to Prey Speu, where staff have been accused of physical and sexual abuse.
The center was shut down in 2012 and reopened a year later, but christened Pur Senchey Vocational Training Center. Former U.N. special rapporteur Rhona Smith had called for the center to be overhauled or shut down permanently. Officials at the time had promised major changes at the center.
The OHCHR office in Cambodia did not reply to a request for comment.