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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Call for more life sentences

Cambodian military police officials stand guard near a burning pile of drugs during a destruction ceremony in Phnom Penh last year. TANG CHHIN SOTHY/Afp
Cambodian military police officials stand guard near a burning pile of drugs during a destruction ceremony in Phnom Penh last year. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Call for more life sentences

The chairman of the National Authority for Combating Drugs called on the courts to dole out more life sentences for large-scale narcotics dealers during a meeting yesterday, accusing the judiciary of not being hard enough on those his men are arresting.

“No drug criminals are sentenced to life. They are all sentenced to 10 years, 15 years,” Deputy Prime Minster Ke Kim Yan complained at a Ministry of Interior meeting. “Sometimes the sentence is reduced to only three years and then they come out again to traffic. The law is strict, but the people passing sentences are not strict.”

“I am not blaming the court, just stating the actual situation,” he said, adding ruefully that even “ringleaders” caught with 5 kilograms of drugs did not receive life sentences.

Yan also urged harsher financial repercussions for dealers.

“Drug traffickers make money, as much as millions of dollars, but the court only seizes property that can be used as evidence, like a single car. It is not strong,” he said, claiming that the threat of being left impoverished by asset seizure could be a powerful deterrent.

National Police anti-drug chief Mok Chito offered a similar assessment of the judiciary’s inadequacy in April 2016, saying too many suspects were being let go and others given light sentences.

But as he did in 2016, when he suggested the concept of presumed innocence might be lost on police, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin yesterday fired back in defence of the judiciary.

“The sentence is up to the discretion of the judge. The judge decides based on the evidence of the case. If the anti-drug police think there is an irregularity in the court process, they can file a complaint if they have proof,” he said.

Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, meanwhile, said that Cambodian law does allow for traffickers to be sentenced to life in prison, but only “if they traffic huge amounts of drugs”.

But while legally permissible in some cases, David Harding, a drug expert with years of experience working in Cambodia, questioned the ethics and pragmatism of life sentences.

“Really extended sentences are traditionally used to have a deterrent effect, but wherever you see them, you still have people trafficking drugs,” he said, adding that “massively overwhelmed” Cambodian prisons can’t support more prisoners.

In January, Nuth Savna, deputy director general for the General Department of Prisons, told The Post that the then-nascent drug crackdown was already having a “negative impact” on “already crowded” prisons.

Harding also said a life sentence would be worse than many rape sentences, and pointed out that the drug of choice in Cambodia, crystal meth, rarely results in death.

The crackdown on drug use that began in January has seen arrests expand exponentially. In just the first two months of 2017, 2,065 busts resulted in 4,826 arrests, nearly half of 2016’s entire total.

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