When Van Phearon, 32, was swept up on the afternoon of January 24 by a group of Daun Penh district police officers as part of a drug crackdown that began on the first of that month, he quickly discovered the price of freedom.
Phearon says police initially asked him for $1,000, encouraging him to call family members or friends who could contribute money for his release. When he told them he had no one to call, the officers allegedly asked if he had any money himself.
“If you can bring us the money before we get to the station, we will let you go,” Phearon says he was told. With little to offer them, he says, the police took his Nokia 1280 cell-phone, his wallet and the $7.50 tucked inside, but it wasn’t enough to secure his release.
As Cambodia’s war on drugs continues unabated, with the government reporting nearly 5,000 arrests in the latest campaign’s first two months, civil society observers and drug users have told The Post of widespread extortion and bribery. In the streets and in detention centres, drug users are discovering that a cash bribe, or in some cases a service rendered, can be all that stands between them and a way out. The question is the price.
On January 1, the first day of the crackdown, a 31-year-old man, who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity, was arrested in a raid on an apartment building on Street 49 near Golden Sorya mall. Though the man admitted to The Post that he takes and sells drugs, he insisted he didn’t have any on him at the time of his arrest.
“The police said they recognised me and knew that I was selling drugs,” he said.
Police arrested him and brought him to the Phsar Thmey III police station that morning, the man explained, but he was released that evening, after his brother allegedly paid a police officer $300 with money earned from selling a 2015 Honda motorbike.
According to Sou Sochenda, a project manager at KHANA, a non-governmental organisation that supports drug treatment and HIV prevention programs, these accounts of bribery conform to a general pattern often reported to harm reduction service providers.
“We heard a lot from our clients that they can bribe the police not to arrest them,” said Sochenda. “But mostly for our target group, they are poor and they don’t have money for bribery or something like that, so eventually they get arrested.”
If money is not readily available, however, sometimes services can be solicited in exchange.
That was the case for Kun Dina, 32, who was sniffing glue beside Phearon when The Post talked to them.
Dina, who was dressed in ragged black clothing, said he was arrested three days before Phearon while collecting cans. He and three others were then also taken to the Phsar Themy III station, where Dina said he emptied trash bins and swept and mopped the floors for two hours before earning his release.
David Harding, an independent drugs expert who has been working with drug users in Cambodia for more than 10 years, said he recognised patterns in the extortion. “What I’ve always seen in these situations is that [the extortion] seems to be very much linked with the perception of the police of somebody’s financial and social status,” said Harding.
“You have people being extorted for $200 or $300, or whatever motorcycle they happen to have with them, but if people appear to come from a higher financial level, they will ask for more.”
In one case Harding encountered, a man was arrested during a drug raid in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district in the first week of February. After being held by police officers for 18 hours, Harding said, the man was released when his sister sold a motorcycle and paid the police officers who arrested her brother $1,300.
Asked about such incidents, Meas Vyrith, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), said such demands, if they took place, are “not a small thing”.
“It is criminal. We already instructed them, they cannot do anything illegal,” Vyrith said. If someone was subjected to this sort of abuse, he said, “they should file complaint to [the arresting officer’s] superior”.
“Their superior will look into it to see if it is true or not.”
Harding said that he learned of three other cases of bribery during the crackdown from Mith Samlanh, a local NGO with which he once collaborated through his former employer, Friends International. These cases, Harding said, are “very small” compared to the numbers that result in detention. When contacted by The Post, Mith Samlanh said that none of their clients felt comfortable speaking with a reporter about this issue.
Drawing on his experience observing the current drug crackdown, and previous ones in 2009 and 2012, Harding said extortion in anti-drug campaigns follows a distinct pattern.
“At the beginning of a process like this you have a zealousness, so you tend to not have the extortion issues,” said Harding. “As it evolves, the police develop a balance where they feel comfortable with the number of arrests that they’ve made; [extortion] tends to happen a bit later as they begin to get more comfortable with the situation.”
There can be exceptions in areas with high rates of drug abuse, Harding said, suggesting that the neighbourhood surrounding Golden Sorya mall may be one such area. “You’re going to have certain areas where they will meet their quotas and there’s less pressure,” which allows police officers to more easily balance their arrest records with their efforts to accumulate cash.
According to Harding, the drug crackdown provides a vehicle for the acceleration of existing shady practices. “A process like [the drug crackdown] allows the existing corruption to continue to be propagated,” said Harding. “It’s the same it was before, but when it’s within a government directive, it legitimises it for a period of time.”
At the local level, Phan Aun, a police chief in Chamkarmon district’s Tumnop Teuk commune, emphatically denied the existence of bribery in the drug crackdown. “There is no such case. If we arrest, it means arrest,” said Aun, adding “users, they don’t have money”.
If “you commit wrongdoing you will be arrested, no matter [if you are] user or trafficker.”Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to comment.
The process of exacting bribes in exchange for release begins in the streets and, according to KHANA and the Women’s Network for Unity (WNU), an NGO that advocates for the rights of sex workers, it continues inside detention and rehabilitation facilities.
A case involving four sex workers from Tuol Kork district – who cannot be named because their families are not aware of their professions – illustrates that phenomenon.
According to Pech Polet, the managing director of the WNU, police raided a rented room in January and forced the women to take a urine test. Of the four women, Polet said, two claimed they had never previously used drugs, while the other two admitted to WNU staff that they had “taken pills” two weeks before their arrest.
Following the drug tests, the police allegedly “asked them for money but didn’t say how much”. The women did not pay and remain detained at the Por Sen Chey rehabilitation facility, according to WNU.
Shortly after the womens’ arrest and detention, Polet and her colleagues at WNU met with them at the centre, where they were allowed 15-minute interviews with each in the presence of the centre’s security guards. She says that during their visit, centre director Veth Valda allegedly asked the organisation to pay a $50 fee for each woman for their first month of detention and $30 for each subsequent month of detention. The WNU refused.
In an interview, Valda acknowledged that he met with WNU representatives on two occasions to provide information about the four sex workers. He denied that inmates could pay for their release or that anyone was asked to pay for an inmate’s stay in his facility.
KHANA’s director Choub Sok Chamreun said it is not uncommon for drug users to obtain their release from detention and rehabilitation centres by paying staff. “Is it drug treatment?” asked Sok Chamreun. “No, this is about negotiation.”
Chamreun was adamant that his organisation supports the government’s efforts to crack down on drugs, but that the emphasis should be on targeting high-level dealers and on providing harm reduction services.
“We would love to see the government get the right people who smuggle the drugs rather than taking those people who are addicted because of their personal consumption and because they have no choice,” he said. “That’s what we want.”
Instead, what happens behind bars sometimes amounts to a shakedown. Once at the centre, Sok Chamreun said, the guards handed a phone to the detainee. “The arrestee has to talk to their relatives and ask for the money to get out. To obtain release, one need only pay one time,” said Sok Chamreun.
“It could be in riel, for some $200, some they are for $300, some $50.”
Normally, said KHANA’s Sochenda, inmates stay for three to six months. “It depends on if you have the money for the release,” she said. “Then you can get out.”
Speaking of inmates generally, centre director Valda added that they are welcome to donate money to the centre during their stay. “If their parents think that they should contribute, they can and the amount of money is up to them.”
The centre “has invoices for them,” he added. “We just tell them that if they volunteer to contribute to the centre, we will be happy to accept it.”
According to Valda, the budget for the Por Sen Chey centre comes from the Ministry of Social Affairs. Sorn Sophal, director of the Municipal Social Affairs Department, declined to comment on funding and activities at the rehabilitation centre.
For Polet, even this ostensibly gentle nudging by the authorities to pay for the upkeep of a detained loved one can be perceived as a threat. “We didn’t pay because we don’t support that policy,” she said.
For parents or loved ones, on the other hand, encouragement by a government official to donate money to a public detention centre can cause people to believe that “if they don’t pay the fee, [their loved ones] might face abuse from whomever”.
“People start to adapt to that situation,” Polet explained. They don’t think to question demands for money, she said, because “if I tell you your son has been arrested, you think ‘how much should I pay to release him?’”