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UN to probe Prey Speu deaths

Sorn Sophal, director of the municipal social affairs department, talks to a detainee at the Prey Speu rehabilitation centre in Choam Chao district yesterday.
Sorn Sophal, director of the municipal social affairs department, talks to a detainee at the Prey Speu rehabilitation centre in Choam Chao district yesterday. Erin Handley

UN to probe Prey Speu deaths

UN officials are due to visit the notorious Prey Speu detention centre in the coming days, following confirmed reports of two more deaths under questionable circumstances at the centre in recent months.

Two people have died at Prey Speu in the past six months, department of social affairs director Sorn Sophal revealed yesterday, a fact confirmed by centre director Ban Vutha and his deputy, Van Gnat.

Choam Chao commune police chief Peng Kosal yesterday said at least one death at the centre had been investigated mid-year and was deemed “medical, not criminal” by his officials, though the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights will be investigating whether the deceased met violent ends.

“We have also heard reports about alleged deaths there and are gathering information about it,” said Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR representative in Cambodia. “We have no conclusive information about the trends, but we have heard testimonies about violent incidents, which seem to point to inadequate safeguards against violence.”

Sophal said the first death was of a 23-year-old woman named Srey Roth, a homeless person transferred to the centre from Calmette Hospital in March. Sophal said Roth was in a critical condition upon her arrival and was expressly sent to Prey Speu to live out her last moments.

Representatives from Calmette declined to comment yesterday, saying they did not have enough details about the case, despite being furnished with Roth’s name, age and the approximate date of her transfer.

The second death was of a young man named Mao Bunthorn, 26, who had been sent to the centre by his family due to mental illness and drug use.

Sophal said Bunthorn had been at the centre for three months before he was sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Hospital with an unknown illness for two weeks before being discharged. He died a week after his return to the centre.

On the day of his death in July, Bunthorn told centre staff he felt ill and believed he saw his mother among centre visitors, although she was not there, Prey Speu deputy chief Van Gnat said.

During singing exercises, Bunthorn’s face turned a deep shade of purple; he collapsed into unconsciousness and began vomiting, Gnat said. According to Sophal, despite administering first aid, Bunthorn was dead upon the arrival of an ambulance. Both he and Roth were cremated at a pagoda near the airport.

“If we let them die in a public place, it is too awful; we would rather they die here than on the street,” he said.

The deaths follow two others from last year. In one incident, a man aged between 40 and 50 drowned during the Pchum Ben holiday in a pond on the centre’s grounds. A woman in her 30s also died on October 16.

In November 2014, a man died at Prey Speu after being denied medical care. All three had been rounded up as part of a government effort to “clean” the streets.

Reporters were granted access to the centre yesterday, where officials touted minor improvements – four new toilets (a total of 15 for around 300 detainees) as well as medical personnel on site.

Sophal, however, prevented reporters from taking pictures of people queuing for a helping of rice at the centre, saying “it looks like Pol Pot”.

Additional reporting by Sen David

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