Cambodian Government Says ‘Human Rights Need to be Put Aside’ in the War On Drugs

Eugene Whong
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This screengrab taken from an undated handout video from Amnesty International released on May 12, 2020 shows prisoners in an overcrowded jail at an unknown location in Cambodia.
This screengrab taken from an undated handout video from Amnesty International released on May 12, 2020 shows prisoners in an overcrowded jail at an unknown location in Cambodia.

Cambodia has shrugged off a report by Amnesty International faulting a three-year-old government war on illegal drugs for systematic human rights violations and a public health crisis, saying rights “need to be put aside” to fight the narcotics problem.

In Substance Abuses: The Human Cost of Cambodia’s Anti-Drug Campaign, the London-based human rights watchdog says that the campaign has focused on detention and prosecution rather than protecting health.

In recent years, the entire region has been put to task as supplies of methamphetamine have resulted in dwindling prices and increased availability. It has surpassed heroin as the drug of choice across Southeast Asia.

The report, published Wednesday, documents how the Cambodian government has engaged in “arbitrary arrests and detention, wrongful convictions, torture and other ill-treatment,” in order to fight back against cheap meth.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, rejected the AI report, telling Reuters news agency: “When it is an anti-drug campaign, there is never a respect for human rights."

"During the anti-drug campaign, human rights need be put aside, so it is clean," he said. He rejected the report’s evidence that police made arbitrary arrests or accepted bribes to let detainees avoid prison.

According to the report, the campaign was originally envisioned at its January 2017 start as a six-month crackdown, but was extended indefinitely. Since the beginning, at least 55,770 people have been arrested on suspicion of using or selling drugs, a large majority of whom are from poor and marginalized backgrounds.

The report was based on interviews conducted at the end of 2019, with 51 people who were arrested and detained in the crackdown, or their family members.

The accused are often treated as if they are guilty, a presumption they are almost unable to shake, the report said.

“They asked me how many times I sold drugs …. The police officer said if I didn’t confess, he would use the taser on me again,” Sreyneang, a 30-year-old Phnom Penh woman who was convicted of trafficking told AI. The report said this type of forced confession was common among those interviewed.

Sreyneang spent six months in pre-trial detention with her baby son in what the report said was inhumane conditions, and was convicted to 2.5 years for trafficking, an experience that interviewees said was “characteristic” of the anti-drug campaign.

In the case of every interviewee, the accused was convicted in unfair trials, was not offered bail as an alternative to pre-trial detention, and none were made aware of their rights, with only two provided free legal aid.

AI estimates that about 60 percent of Cambodia’s prison population are there on drug-related charges. Since the start of the campaign, the number of prisoners climbed by 78 percent, with the largest prison, called CC1, housing 9,500 inmates, about five times its capacity.

The overcrowding has made the country’s prisons a breeding ground for disease.

“If one person got a respiratory infection, within a few days everyone in the cell got it,” said Long, a former CC1 inmate.

Maly, a 40-year-old mother struggled to raise her daughter in her overcrowded cell in the CC2 prison.

“She wanted to move around, she wanted more space, she wanted to see the outside. She wanted freedom… She often got fever and flu. Because we had no space, my child normally slept on top of my body,” Maly said.

Those fortunate enough to not be sent to prison were forcibly sent to what the government calls rehabilitation centers, which the report described as having conditions worse than in the country’s prisons.

“Though these centers claim to treat people with drug dependence, in reality they operate as punitive and abusive detention centers, utterly lacking in medical facilities and properly trained staff. Rather than receiving evidence-based treatment, detainees are detained against their will and face systematic abuse,” the report said.

People formerly interned at the centers have alleged that they and their fellow inmates experienced torture, forced labor, sexual violence, and deaths in detention while there.

The report also stated that the decision on whether to send a detainee for rehab or to press criminal charges follows “no systematic pattern,” but several of the interviewees spoke of being asked to pay bribes to be sent to rehab instead of facing trial.

The overcrowding in both the prisons and the rehabilitation centers in the era of COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic.

AI pointed out how other governments reduced their prison populations in response to the global epidemic by releasing non-violent and at-risk prisoners or those detained sans adequate legal basis.

“In light of this public health emergency, it has never been more urgent for the Cambodian authorities to address the country’s detention overcrowding crisis,” AI said.

According to the report Cambodia did the exact opposite, with arrests increasing in the early part of 2020.

Amnesty International called on Cambodia to urgently review its approach to drugs, with a priority on healthcare and the abandonment of what it called “failed, abusive practices.” It also called for a permanent end to the drug detention centers, with those released afforded sufficient health and social services.

“Moreover, in order to fully protect the rights of people who use drugs and other affected communities, the authorities should move without delay towards the decriminalization of the use and possession of drugs for personal use,” said AI.

It recommended aid donors and other partners in Cambodia’s development to oppose the government’s approach to rehabilitation and criminalization, and provide technical and financial support to assist Cambodia if the government decides to reform its drug policies.

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