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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Arrests soar under drug war compared to 2016

Arrests soar under drug war compared to 2016

With an additional 1,749 arrests so far this month, Cambodia’s anti-drug crackdown, which began on January 1, has already yielded nearly half as many drug-related arrests as there were in all of 2016.

Between January 1 and February 19, “we arrested 4,177 people, including drug users, and 1,917 drug traffickers,” Meas Vyrith, deputy secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said yesterday.

Last month, authorities arrested 2,428 people, 1,243 of whom were users, he added. Last year, Vyrith said, Cambodian authorities made 9,933 drug-related arrests.

While the crackdown has led to a steadily rising number of drug-related arrests, experts warned that the campaign could exacerbate the dangers of drug addiction.

“In addition to the negative economic, social and health consequences of being in detention [suspects are] potentially burdened with a criminal record,” Gloria Lai, a senior policy officer for the International Drug Policy Consortium, said via email.

“Crackdowns create an environment where people … are more likely to resort to more dangerous modes of drug use as well as [being] driven away from life-saving health services, in order to evade arrest.”

Meanwhile, James Sutherland, of NGO Friends International, which provides support to disadvantaged young people, said that other methods can be more effective than crackdowns.

“With our extensive experience with drug-using youth, we absolutely believe that holistic approaches which incorporate prevention education and harm reduction work most effectively,” he said in a message. “Medically supported detoxification and re-habilitation and relapse prevention needs to take place in specialized centres, with the support of qualified social workers.”

Another worry is that the crackdown will overburden already crowded prisons.

“The government has been quite concerned and is building more accommodations,” said Nouth Savna, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons. “We are going to finish building two new buildings at Correctional Centre 4 [in Pursat].”

Savna also said authorities were “shifting people to facilities that can take them in”.

Naly Pilorge, deputy director for advocacy for the rights group Licadho, says her organisation, which monitors some prisons, has noticed overcrowding and a substantial increase in pre-trial detainees.

However, Licadho has not yet been able to fully analyse changes as its analysts “only work in 45% of prisons”, she said in a message.

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