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Associated Press
Cambodian sex workers stage a protest in a conference room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last week. About 200 Cambodian sex workers protested Wednesday against a police crackdown on prostitution and alleged that some of them had been physically and sexually abused in custody.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — About 200 Cambodian prostitutes protested peacefully Wednesday against a police crackdown and claimed to have been physically and sexually abused in custody.

The prostitutes staged a protest in the capital, Phnom Penh, to complain that they had been unlawfully detained and to highlight the behavior of guards at the rehabilitation center where they were held.

"Some of them (the sex workers) were beaten and gang raped by the center guards, and most of the time they did not use condoms," said Chan Dina, a 31-year-old prostitute and member of the Cambodian Prostitute Union, a sex workers' advocacy group.

Police began rounding up male and female sex workers from brothels, bars and parks in March, detaining them for a week to 10 days at the Prey Speu rehabilitation center on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

Cambodian law does not explicitly define prostitution as illegal, but commercial sex is frowned upon by authorities who routinely launch sweeps to clean up the streets.

"Sex workers are human beings and we have equal rights" and deserve protection from abuse, Chan Dina said.

"We do not think that sex work is wrong. It is just a means to an end," said Pich Sokchea, a 42-year-old transvestite sex worker with the Women's Network for Unity, another prostitutes' advocacy group.

Pich Sokchea urged the government to end the crackdown because it was affecting the livelihood of sex workers, many of whom were forced into the profession by poverty and debts. "We are people who sacrifice everything for the sake of our families and for our livelihood."

It was unclear what prompted the latest crackdown but some activists said an anti-trafficking law approved in March may have caused authorities to take a tougher stand against prostitution.

Police Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry's spokesman, dismissed claims that police committed violence against sex workers and said none was mistreated in the crackdown.

He defended the crackdown, calling sex work unacceptable in Cambodia.