The Cambodian government’s three-year long “war on drugs” campaign has fuelled a rising tide of human rights abuses, dangerously overfilled detention facilities and led to an alarming public health situation – even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds – while failing in its stated objective of curbing drug use, a new investigative report by Amnesty International published today reveals.
The new 78-page report, Substance abuses: The human cost of Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign, documents how the authorities prey on poor and marginalized people, arbitrarily carry out arrests, routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and dispatch those who can’t buy their freedom to severely overcrowded prisons and pseudo “rehabilitation centres” in which detainees are denied healthcare and are subjected to severe abuse.
Cambodia’s ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster – it rests upon systematic human rights abuses and has created a bounty of opportunities for corrupt and poorly-paid officials in the justice system.
“Cambodia’s ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster – 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”, said Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director at Amnesty International.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, launched his anti-drugs campaign in January 2017, just weeks after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during which the two leaders pledged to cooperate in combatting drugs. According to government officials, the campaign aims to reduce drug use and related harms in Cambodia, including by arresting people who use drugs en masse. As recently as March 2020, Interior Minister Sar Kheng called for legal action against all “drug addicts and dealers in small-scale drug use and distribution cases.”
Yet, like the Philippines’ so-called “war on drugs”, this campaign is rife with egregious human rights violations that are disproportionately affecting poor and marginalized people – irrespective of whether or not they use drugs.
“Using abusive approaches to punish people who use drugs is not only wrong, it is utterly ineffective. It is high time that Cambodian authorities heed the widely available scientific evidence showing that all-punitive law enforcement campaigns simply exacerbate social harms”, said Nicholas Bequelin.
Two parallel systems, one devastating campaign and no due process
In the course of its investigation Amnesty International spoke to dozens of victims of Cambodia’s inhumane anti-drugs campaign. They described being subjected to two parallel systems of punishment: some were arbitrarily detained without charge in drug detention centres, while others were convicted through the criminal justice system and sent to prison.
Their testimonies reveal a remarkable consistency in violations of due process leading to people’s detention, and no coherent method in determining whether people are either criminally prosecuted or sent to drug detention centres. Individual police officers – who are sometimes influenced by bribes – have significant discretion to determine people’s fate.
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.
The case of 38-year-old Sopheap shows the arbitrary nature of the campaign. She started using methamphetamine occasionally in early 2017. Six months later, in October 2017, she was arrested in a drugs raid along with her two 16- and 17-year old neighbours.
“There were no more drugs left when the police came, only a bottle, a lighter and other paraphernalia lying around,” she explained. “They said they would send us to a rehabilitation centre… but they actually sent us to the court, and then to the prison.”
Many people described how they were detained as a result of police raids on poor neighbourhoods or city “beautification” sweeps that leave people who are poor, homeless, and struggling with drug dependence especially at risk of arrest.
Sreyneang, a 30-year-old woman from Phnom Penh, told Amnesty International how she was tortured following her arbitrary arrest during a drugs raid in Phnom Penh: “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.”
Those subjected to criminal prosecution consistently described legal processes which made a mockery of fair trial rights, including convictions based on flimsy and inadequate evidence and summary trials conducted in the absence of defence lawyers. Many accused people had a very limited understanding of their rights, putting them at even greater risk of human rights violations.
One interviewee, Vuthy, was only 14 at the time of his arrest. After being arrested in a drugs raid, he was beaten by several police officers and charged with drug trafficking. He described his investigation and trial: “I didn’t understand the process and what the different court visits meant. The first time I understood what was happening was when they told me my prison sentence. Nobody ever asked me if I had a lawyer or gave me one.”
Inhumane detention conditions
The campaign, which continues to this day, was initially presented as a six-month operation starting in January 2017. It is the leading cause in Cambodia’s current crisis of severe overcrowding in prisons and other detention facilities.
This overcrowding crisis is causing serious violations of the right to health of people deprived of their liberty. It often amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under international human rights law.
By March 2020, the nationwide prison population had skyrocketed by 78% to over 38,990 people since the campaign’s start. Cambodia’s largest prison facility, Phnom Penh’s CC1, exceeded 9,500 prisoners – nearly five times its estimated capacity of 2,050.
This situation should have led the authorities to urgently ease extreme overcrowding in the country’s detention centres amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including by releasing all those held without an adequate legal basis – such as people held in drug detention centres – and by pursuing parole, early or conditional release, and other alternative non-custodial measures for prisoners, especially those most at risk of COVID-19.
Maly described how she and her one-year-old daughter were held in Phnom Penh’s CC2 prison: “It was so hard to raise my daughter inside. 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.”
While the total population in Cambodia’s drug detention centres is not publicized, all testimonies obtained by Amnesty International suggest that overcrowding inside these centres is just as severe as inside prisons.
All detention facilities are at high risk of major outbreaks of COVID-19, and many detainees have pre-existing conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis that put them at increased risk. Long, a former CC1 inmate, told Amnesty International: “If one person got a respiratory infection, within a few days everyone in the cell got it. It was a breeding ground for illness.”
Exclusive video footage from inside a Cambodian prison, published by Amnesty International last month, showed extreme overcrowding and inhumane conditions of detention. In response, a spokesman for the prisons department conceded that “every day is like a ticking time bomb” for a COVID-19 outbreak in detention facilities.
Yet, to date, the Cambodian authorities have failed to take any action to reduce the prison population, even as regional neighbours including Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia have released tens of thousands of people in detention who are at risk, including people held on drug-related charges.
Torture in drug detention centres
Although drug detention centres claim to provide treatment for people with drug dependence, in practice they operate as sites of abuse. Every individual interviewed by Amnesty International provided detailed accounts of physical abuse amounting to torture or other ill-treatment committed by centre staff or so-called “room leaders” – inmates entrusted by staff to enforce discipline.
As soon as the guard left, the room leader started to beat me. I was knocked unconscious so I can’t remember what happened after that.
Thyda, who was held in the Orkas Khnom drug detention centre in Phnom Penh during 2019, told Amnesty International: “This [violence] happened to everyone and it was normal. Violence like this was part of the daily routine; part of their programme.”
Another, Sarath, described his first day in a drug detention centre, where he was sent at the age of 17: “As soon as the guard left, the room leader started to beat me. I was knocked unconscious so I can’t remember what happened after that.”
Drug detention centres have also been dogged by reports of sexual violence and deaths in custody. Amnesty International’s investigation uncovered multiple new allegations of such deaths. Phanith, a former room leader, told Amnesty International how he witnessed an inmate “chained by the hands and the feet so that he could not move around. And the building leader beat him like that until he died.”
Time to end punitive approaches to people who use drugs
The Cambodian authorities’ hard-line approach to people who use drugs has failed in its primary aim of reducing drug use and related harms, and instead created a catastrophic public health and human rights crisis for the country’s poorest and most at-risk populations.
Yet there are clear, evidence-based alternatives. International drug policy has shifted in recent years and led to sweeping reforms in favour of evidence-based alternatives that better protect public health and human rights, including the decriminalization of use and possession of drugs for personal use. The Cambodian Ministry of Health has recently taken some tentative steps in the right direction by increasing the availability of evidence-based treatment in community settings.
However, it is essential that all compulsory drug detention centres be shut down promptly and permanently. People detained there must be released immediately with sufficient provisions of health and social services made available to them.
In Cambodia, and across the world, the so-called war on drugs has failed. But there are clear alternatives based on scientific evidence that better protect human rights.
Moreover, the Cambodian authorities should move without delay towards implementing the measures they committed to at the UN Human Rights Council in 2019, in order to put in place a new drug policy that shifts away from prohibition and fully protects the rights of people who use drugs and other affected communities.
“In Cambodia, and across the world, the so-called war on drugs has failed. But there are clear alternatives based on scientific evidence that better protect human rights. The Cambodian authorities must consign the abusive policies of arbitrary detention and criminalization to history and embrace a compassionate and effective new era of drug policy”, said Nicholas Bequelin.