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Rights Group Criticizes Cambodia’s ‘Failed War on Drugs’

FILE: Police officers and people look on as government officials light a fire during a ceremony to dispose of confiscated drugs, in Phnom Penh August 28, 2012.
FILE: Police officers and people look on as government officials light a fire during a ceremony to dispose of confiscated drugs, in Phnom Penh August 28, 2012.

Rights group Amnesty International released a damning report Wednesday documenting various human rights abuses committed along the law enforcement chain related to Cambodia’s “war on drugs” that has resulted in the arrests of tens of thousands of Cambodians.

The report, titled “Substance Abuse – The Human Cost of Cambodia’s Anti-Drug Campaign,” was released on Wednesday and documents issues plaguing Cambodian law enforcement, judiciary and drug rehabilitation programs, resulting in frequent rights abuses, while also highlighting the pitfalls of severe criminalization of drug use.

The international rights group interviewed 51 people, 34 who were or previously had used drugs. It also reviewed official documents from government institutions and ministries while drafting the report. The report is limited to the harmful effects and rights violations linked to the government’s “war on drugs” started in 2017.

“Over three years since its launch, the country’s campaign against drugs has not only failed in its primary mission of reducing drug use and drug-related harms, it has led to serious and systematic human rights violations,” the report reads.

The main issues highlighted in the report were the ad-hoc mechanisms used by law enforcement in arresting alleged offenders, the consequent overcrowding in prisons, accusations of torture and abuse at drug rehabilitation centers and endemic corruption which has resulted in the incarceration of innocent people.

The report reveals that at least 55,770 people have been arrested on suspicion of using or selling drugs between January 2017 and March 2020. National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) reports show that Cambodia’s prison population has skyrocketed by 78% since the campaign started, from 21,900 at the end of 2016 to over 38,990 in March 2020, even though Cambodia’s prisons have an estimated capacity of just 26,593.

The report show that “thousands” of people each year were detained without charges in drug rehabilitation centers and social affairs centers, mostly in inhumane conditions and with detainees often subjected to torture and abuse.

“In there, I felt that I was in hell. Trying to endure the beatings, the food, the overcrowding — it was completely unbearable,” replied one of the respondents, who had been placed in the notorious Prey Speu detention center, officially called the Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Center.

The report details the violation of fair trial rights and inconsistencies in the application of the relevant laws to alleged drug users and traffickers. The system, the report says, is ripe with a presumption of guilt, the over criminalization of drug offenses and endemic corruption at all stages of the criminal justice system – from initial arrest to imprisonment.

This was especially apparent in the extortionary tactics used by police officials to alter initial reports, which could result in a lesser charge, early release from prison on a lighter sentence or even the release of an innocent person caught up in the initial arrest.

“When my sister was at the district police station, one officer told me that if I gave $100 to him, he would change my sister’s police report,” said one of the respondents identified as Vorn. “[H]e said he would make the case lighter after it gets sent to court.”

This would include “luy rutgaa” or commission money to get lighter sentences from Cambodian courts.

“There is a fixed price for different crimes. If you pay the money, your time is cut down. You might get three years sentence and 2.5 years suspended. You always have to pay money for [suspended sentences] in drugs cases,” said another former prisoner at Koh Kong Provincial Prison, who was not identified in the report.

VOA Khmer spoke to a Phnom Penh resident, who requested to be identified by his first name, Samnang, whose brother had allegedly been swept up in a drug raid. Samnang did not want his or his brother’s name published in full because the latter’s case was still making its way through Cambodian courts.

The brother, Samnang claimed, had been convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 25 years in prison, even though he was not involved in drug use or narcotic sales.

“Police tested his urine [for drugs] and it showed that he is not drug user,” Samnang said.

“The police accused my brother of selling drugs with another person,” said Samnang, adding that the other person was beaten to implicate Samnang’s brother. “My brother doesn’t even know him.”

Afraid of leaving his brother in prison for 25 years, Samnang is paying around $12,000 to get his brother’s case dropped. He did not want to divulge who the money would go to so as to not affect the outcome.

“I don’t know about this court system. He will not be able to live up to 25 years in prison. I feel emotional when talking about him,” he said.

Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin rejected the report’s findings and methodology outright, adding that no consultations were conducted with relevant ministries or authorities before its publications.

Amnesty International has appended letters sent to Health Minister Mam Bunheng, Social Affairs Minister Vong Soth, NACD head Ke Kim Yan and Chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee Keo Remy requesting for responses to the findings.

The letters were also sent to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, then-Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and Phnom Penh Governor Khuong Sreng.

“If they just raise baseless allegations and don’t cooperate with authorities, we don’t know how to solve it,” he said.

He instead pointed to an Interior Ministry announcement last week that the government was considering releasing prisoners, including those cases with drug charges, to reduce overcrowding and to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus.

Pech Pisey, the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the corruption in Cambodian courts was one of the major factors in Cambodia’s poor showing in their corruption index.

Cambodia ranked 162 of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.

He added that they group had received information that court prosecutors, police officials and legal authorities were soliciting bribes from accused individuals who were wrongly being accused of trafficking.

“I think we try to have procedures to avoid such charges where they put people in prison immediately,” he said.