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U.N. must speak out over Cambodian rehab centers

PHNOM PENH -- A leading rights group on Sunday called on the United Nations to review its support for Cambodian government-run drug rehabilitation centres, where detainees allegedly suffer grave abuses.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report last week calling for the closure of at least 11 centres nationwide, where it said detainees suffer “sadistic violence” such as electric shocks, forced labour and rape.

The government has denied the allegations in the HRW report, which also said people were often held in the centres without reasonable cause and were denied access to a lawyer.

Though several U.N. agencies have since spoken out about the abuses, those working most closely with the government in detention centres and on drug policy have been less vocal, HRW said in a statement on Sunday.

Government data revealed that more than 500 of the detainees were aged under 18, according to the latest HRW report.

The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) “need to make clear to the Cambodian government that the centres should be shut down”, said Joe Amon, HRW health and human rights director.

“Instead of remaining silent, the United Nations should review its programmes and support for these centres,” he added.

UNICEF's Cambodia representative Richard Bridle said they would “like to examine all of the evidence before we examine what to do”.

“We appreciate HRW is a serious organisation and does do good research but we're not just going to act on the evidence it puts out in its reports.”

Bridle also said UNICEF had to take a “practical approach” to the centres and work with the government for the best interests of young detainees.

The centres, run by various branches of the Cambodian state including the police and the ministry of social affairs, detained nearly 2,400 people in total in 2008, it said.

Rights groups have in the past made allegations about abuse at Cambodia's drug rehabilitation centres and UN health officials have questioned their treatment methods.

HRW's report also said detainees were forced to donate blood, were fed rotten or insect-ridden food and chained while standing in the sun as punishment.

Detainees were arrested for drug use and vagrancy but were also frequently rounded up in police sweeps of people considered “undesirable” in advance of national holidays or international meetings, it added.

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