Human rights

Amnesty International: Cambodia’s war on drugs an ‘unmitigated disaster’

In 2017 Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a crackdown on narcotics in the Kingdom. Three years on, rights group Amnesty International says the campaign has been a failure, resulting in rampant rights abuses and overcrowded prisons

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May 14, 2020
Amnesty International: Cambodia’s war on drugs an ‘unmitigated disaster’
A Cambodian policeman stands guard near a pile of burning drugs in Phnom Penh on June 26, 2019 during a destruction ceremony to mark the UN's International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

The Cambodian “war on drugs” launched in 2017 has offered little help to addicts while adding to overcrowded prisons and ongoing human rights abuses, according to a newly released report from human rights group Amnesty International.

In the Monday release, researchers from Amnesty say they interviewed more than 30 alleged drug users from Cambodia who had spent time circulating through either the criminal justice or compulsory rehabilitation systems. Testimony from the individuals spoke of dysfunctional administrations riddled with corruption and harsh treatment of the detained, in which treatment can amount to beatings and forced, military-style exercise.

“Cambodia’s ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster,” stated Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty’s regional director, in a press release. “It rests upon systematic human rights abuses and has created a bounty of opportunities for corrupt and poorly-paid officials in the justice system, while doing nothing for public health and safety.”

The Amnesty study, which documents conditions mounting since Prime Minister Hun Sen announced three years ago an official crackdown on narcotics trafficking, paints both systems in a harsh light. It’s not the first to do so – a 2013 study by Human Rights Watch alleged many of the same issues and abuses years before the prime minister’s enhanced approach.

Echoing accusations made in that earlier report was Naran, a middle-aged recyclable scavenger by trade and one of the 51 people who spoke with Amnesty investigators late last year. She told the organisation’s researchers that “to be a drug user is to be treated like an animal”.

What’s more, Naran’s experience suggests the law-and-order approach to drug users may only scare them off from medically approved treatment.

Naran, who was in drug treatment at the time of her arrest, said she was detained in Phnom Penh outside the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, which administers methadone services for rehabilitation from opioid addiction. 

“Regardless whether we had anything or not, they just arrested everyone,” she told Amnesty. “Nobody in the group had any drugs. I showed them my card that says I am receiving methadone treatment. The clinic staff told me before that if social affairs [officers] or police come to arrest [me], I can show them my card and they won’t arrest me. But when I showed them my card, they didn’t listen to me and they tore my card in half in front of my face.”

Though the Cambodian response has garnered less notoriety than that of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte – whose own crackdown has led to the deaths of anywhere between 5,100-12,000 people due to vigilante and state violence – it has ushered in a new era of detention for those suspected of using or selling drugs.

Statistics reported from the Cambodian National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) to the UNODC, the UN agency dedicated to illicit drugs, reflect a sharp increase in drug-related arrests – from 10,000 in 2016 to about 17,000 a year later. Also in 2016, according to the Cambodian Ministry of Social Affairs, about 3,400 people were sent to drug rehabilitation centres. A year later, that number had jumped to more than 8,700. The vast majority of those admitted are for methamphetamine use, which accounted in 2017 for 98% of admissions.

Based on the spirit of collaboration, Amnesty International, should provide more specifics to law enforcement if we [want to] have a spirit of cooperation in preventing drug offences

Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice

Recent estimates also suggest that Cambodia’s prison population has risen by 78% since the drug crackdown began, from 21,900 in late 2016 to over 38,990 as of March this year. Cambodia’s prisons are estimated to have a capacity of only 26,593. 

Chin Malin, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice and vice-chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told the Globe that while his department was taking the findings into consideration, he had “doubts regarding [Amnesty’s] methods of information gathering and analysis”. 

“Based on the spirit of collaboration, Amnesty International, should provide more specifics to law enforcement if we [want to] have a spirit of cooperation in preventing drug offences. Let the authorities do the work rather than issue a report without informing them,” he said. 

Malin added that the Kingdom’s rising prison population “proves the success of the campaign, not a failure”. 

Drug arrests have increased in Cambodia, but so too has the amount of narcotics flowing through the country. Production and trafficking of meth and other synthetic drugs has presented a growing crisis for regional law enforcement now tasked with stopping a black market that carries tens of billions of dollars of product from manufacturers in Myanmar to consumers across Asia and Oceania. According to UNODC, in 2018 alone Cambodian authorities seized more meth than in the previous five years combined.

This screengrab taken from an undated handout video from Amnesty International released on May 12 shows prisoners in an overcrowded jail at an unknown location in Cambodia. Photo: Handout/Amnesty International/AFP

Still, the dual challenge of fighting trafficking while providing substance abuse treatment has created new problems of governance. The Amnesty report describes the processing of individuals for the “two parallel systems of detention”, in either the criminal justice system or the compulsory rehabilitation centres, as an essentially arbitrary decision. Arresting police officers may make the call of where an individual ends up.

All of the people interviewed last year by Amnesty told the organisation they were not told of the legal basis for their arrests, nor were they given an opportunity to pay bail. Beyond that, the report authors wrote that only two defendants of the dozens interviewed were provided with free legal aid, leaving most to fend for themselves in the criminal justice system. Some watched other prisoners avoid charges by paying bribes to arresting officers, either with cash or jewelery.

The Amnesty report also highlighted the detention of suspected users without criminal charges in centres established for rehabilitation or “social affairs”. The investigators alleged these centres were ill-equipped to provide drug rehabilitation services; rather, they said detainees are held “against their will and face systematic abuse”.

“In there, I felt that I was in hell,” said Ratha, a Phnom Penh resident who spoke with Amnesty and who was formerly held in the city’s Prey Speu detention centre. “Trying to endure the beatings, the food, the overcrowding – it was completely unbearable.”

Cambodia has in recent years taken steps to replace the compulsory rehabilitation model with a community-based drug treatment programme with a goal of providing a medical approach to patients looking for help. The Amnesty writers said that effort, which currently is being practiced through 431 facilities across the country, was a hopeful sign for the future but needed more resources to succeed.

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