The Social Affairs Ministry said it plans to reduce the number of people detained at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu center, months after a local NGO said detainees had died at the center in 2022.
Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth met with the representatives of the United Nations’ human rights office in Cambodia on Tuesday and said the ministry was taking steps to reduce the number of people detained at the center.
Ministry spokesperson Touch Channy said the ministry would look at who was in Prey Speu center and release them accordingly. He said drug users would be sent to a drug rehabilitation center in Kandal and those who are poor will be sent to their homes and given IDPoor benefits.
“I think this evening, some social affairs department officials will come and take them from the Prey Speu center,” Channy said. “We are doing this and there won’t be much issue at Prey Speu anymore.”
When asked why the ministry had made this decision, the spokesperson refused to give a straight answer and took a more sarcastic tone.
“You ask me why, I don’t know how to answer this,” he said. “Is it not you who thinks that this center is a confinement center? Where people are left behind and [their detention is] unsolved?”
“But when it is solved you asked me like this and why? If you know nothing, what are you asking me for?”
The spokesperson then cut the call and would not pick up a reporter’s call to answer if the center would be eventually shut down.
Channy’s defensive comments likely stem from long-term criticism of the center, where rights groups have said marginalized groups, like people living on the street, beggars, sex workers and drug users, are routinely mistreated and held indefinitely without legal standing.
The center, which is located in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao II commune, is purportedly a vocational training center tasked with providing life skills.
Local human rights NGO Licadho alleged in December that at least 10 people died at the center between July and August, pointing to two specific deaths in August where the deceased did not receive adequate treatment.
At the time, the Social Affairs Ministry investigated the allegations and Channy admitted there were deaths at Prey Speu, but denied it was because of lax health care nor would he confirm how many deaths had been reported at the center.
Am Sam Ath, operations director at Licadho, said city officials were continuing to send people to the center and that nothing had changed in their approach to marginalized groups. The NGO has repeatedly asked for the center to be shut down.
“Licadho still continues [to monitor] and if the center has not been changed, Licadho asks for its closure,” he said. A U.N. rights envoy called for Prey Speu to be overhauled or shut down in 2019. The OHCHR office in Cambodia did not reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.