Rights groups and former detainees say it’s rife with unlawful detention and physical abuse that masquerades as rehabilitation. The government denies the charges.

By Brendan Brady and Mark Magnier

Phnom Penh, Cambodia — He meanders through a city park with friends, sniffing glue out of a plastic bag. Many nights he passes out on the sidewalk nearby.

It’s a bleak routine, but this 17-year-old prefers it to his stints at Choam Chao, one of the Cambodian government’s controversial drug rehabilitation centers, where he was twice detained.

“When I stopped doing the [enforced physical] exercises, they’d kick me in the stomach,” said the teenager, who, along with other former detainees, requested anonymity because he feared official retribution.

Drug addicts shoot heroin in a slum of Phnom Penh. Human Rights Watch called Cambodia’s approach to supposed rehabilitation “sadistic,” and said addicts, the homeless and sex workers are rounded up wholesale to be removed from public view. (Paula Bronstein, Getty Images / August 11, 2010)

Although his account could not be independently verified, it is consistent with what human rights groups and other detainees say is a widespread pattern of unlawful detention in Cambodia that masquerades as rehabilitation. Those unfortunate enough to be unwillingly caught inside this harsh system are often subject to physical and emotional abuse and deprivation.

The teenager said he started using drugs at age 8, soon after his father died. He lived for a few years with his mother, who scraped by scavenging garbage, then struck out on his own, earning money watching parked cars for tips.

His first “rehabilitation” detention, at age 11, lasted six months after he was picked up in a police sweep of his neighborhood. That was followed, at age 13, by 21/2 years of incarceration, during which guards and their stooges attacked him with braided electrical wire and belt buckles. He said he was never officially charged with any crime or allowed to see a lawyer.

The teen, who said he has lost touch with his mother, said the only pretense of therapy while in detention was an occasional medical checkup, by officials from a visiting charity, and three hours of daily military drills designed to “sweat out” the drugs. New arrivals suffering severe withdrawal symptoms were lashed down to their beds at night, he added.

Civic groups said the boy’s account is hardly unusual.

“Human rights abuses are intrinsic to how these centers operate,” said Joe Amon, a New York-based director of Human Rights Watch, which has released a report on the issue. “Arduous physical exercise and military drills appeared to be happening everywhere, as were beatings and whippings by center staff or detainees … for disciplinary purposes.”

The watchdog group characterized this approach to supposed rehabilitation as “sadistic,” adding that wholesale detention of drug users, homeless people, sex workers and beggars in holding centers out of public view is common, with street sweeps occurring especially before holidays and visits by foreign dignitaries.

“This practice takes its roots from [Cambodian] history,” said Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant with Licadho, a Cambodian human rights group that has campaigned against forced detentions. “It’s very deep in their DNA. To this day, the government denies that it’s unlawful detention.”

In mid-2008, Pellerin got word of a wholesale roundup of “undesirables.” He went with a team to a government detention center, where he found the director drunk.

A member of his team lured the official aside as others went inside and photographed the dire conditions being endured by entire families, the mentally disabled, epilepsy patients without medicine and pregnant women who were hauled off the street by police and government workers, most without their family’s knowledge.

When Pellerin and his team presented their evidence to the government, he said, officials denied wrongdoing and said the disclosures were politically motivated.

Human Rights Watch said it has also received reports of police and Social Affairs Ministry officials making money by leasing out detainees as laborers or selling their “donated” blood.

The so-called rehabilitation system’s real aims appear to be social control, profit and retribution for perceived moral failure, watchdog groups said. More than 2,000 people were detained in 11 Cambodian facilities nationwide in 2008, the vast majority involuntarily. For drug users put through the state rehabilitation system, the relapse rate was nearly 100%, according to one World Health Organization report.

Pellerin blames the Cambodian government for the alleged abuses, but he also points a finger at United Nations agencies and countries that donate aid but don’t use their money or leverage to force change.

“Donors seem unwilling to draw conclusions that should be drawn after two decades,” he said. “Maybe they don’t want to admit their own failure.”

Cambodian authorities have denied the charges of abuse. At an anti-narcotics conference in March, Prime Minister Hun Sen acknowledged that the centers were not “medically appropriate,” but he accused human rights groups of “blindly attack[ing] without seeing the government’s charity.”

Drug users should appreciate the food, shelter and training they receive, Cambodian officials say. Although some facilities may be substandard, they add, that only reflects the limited resources of a nation still recovering from decades of war.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime is discussing a $9.7-million project to create voluntary, community-level drug rehabilitation in Cambodia as an alternative to the government program.

“Research tells us empathy is key to the effectiveness of drug-dependence treatment,” said Juana Tomas-Rossello, a drug treatment advisor with the office who is working on the plan.

Cambodia is not alone. China, the regional powerhouse, reportedly holds half a million drug abusers in compulsory rehabilitation at any given time, civic groups and academics said. Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have recently embraced or long resorted to compulsory detoxification and punitive detention amid concern over a recent, sharp rise in methamphetamine use.

Some former detainees in Cambodia note glimmers of humanity in the system. The 17-year-old glue sniffer was instructed in traditional drums and hair cutting. And a recently released 15-year-old said his term was “easy” and included English lessons, although he was forcibly detained without charges and saw others beaten.

The basic problem, say critics and detainees, is that Cambodia’s system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation.

“Those places will harden you,” said a 22-year-old former detainee, sipping moonshine in a vacant lot where he was preparing to spend the night.

[Published by the Los Angeles Times on August 10, 2010]