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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Critics slam tough drug law pushed by US

Critics slam tough drug law pushed by US

THE United States and the United Nations pressured Cambodia into drafting its tough

new anti-drug law in spite of criticism that it will violate human rights and allow

open attack against political enemies.

The irony, critics say, is that the US and the UN are putting the most money into

programs advocating human rights and democracy in Cambodia .

The Cambodian draft law will allow - at the discretion of police and without a warrant

- phone tapping, 24-hour house and business searches and the seizure of assets, including

bank accounts. Suspects can be detained for four days without charge; mail searched;

and a maximum jail term of five years given to anyone possessing or using any banned

drug, including cannabis. Hotels, clubs and bars can be closed, and computer records

searched and seized. There are also provisions for money-changers and casinos to

record the name and details of all clients involved in cash transactions.

The law was drafted by a French United Nations Drugs Control Program (UNDCP) official

in 1994. It effectively sat idle in the Council of Ministers while laws considered

more urgent were debated.

Dr. Phat Mau - who now works for the USAID-funded American Bar Association (ABA)

as a consultant at the Ministry of Justice - translated the law from French to Khmer

when he was working for the USAID-funded Asia Foundation, according to ABA director

Thomas Reynders.

In February the US added Cambodia to its list of "major illicit drug producing

and drug transit countries" - consistent with its publicly-stated foreign policy

priority to wage war against drugs.

Knowledgeable sources within the Cambodian Government say that the law has been pushed

through under implicit threat of aid sanctions - something the US is entitled to

do by putting Cambodia on its "drug list".

Dr. Mau, in a covering statement to the law signed by Prime Ministers Prince Norodom

Ranariddh and Hun Sen, acknowledges that the law had been prepared "following

the proposal of the International Program of Drugs Control of the United Nations

(UNDCP).

"The representatives of this program have come to contact the Ministry of Justice

and other relevant ministries to explain the importance of fighting against drugs,

and said that if we could have a Law on Control of Drugs, [the UNDCP] will assist

us to have means for the implementation of this law," the statement continued.

Reynders said the ABA had "essentially no contact" with USAID or the embassy

regarding the law, though an ABA official met a US drug expert in October "though

I don't believe they went over the law at all".

The speed of its passage has surprised many of those who monitor the National Assembly.

The draft was signed by the Prime Ministers on March 18 and - while other laws considered

by many Cambodian MPs as more important are still sitting idle - the anti-drug law

could be among the first debated when the Assembly next meets.

"The only other bill to have gone through so fast might have been that outlawing

the Khmer Rouge," said one lawyer. "[The US embassy] will argue they haven't

put any pressure to get this law through... do they think we're all stupid?"

The US Embassy released the following statement to the Post: "A US Government

expert reviewed a draft of the [drug] statute last October and provided extensive

comments on the draft. The comments provided by the expert pointed out a number of

areas in which the statute could be strengthened. We have also provided a copy of

these comments to senior RCG officials."

The embassy would not comment further on what role the State Department, USAID, the

ABA or the UNDCP had in the draft, nor whether the law was "strengthened"

as the "US expert" advised, nor on the effects the law will have on the

human rights and democracy situation in the Kingdom, nor whether the continuation

of US aid was used as a tool to get the draft through.

The Post has seen a copy of the "US Government expert's" report, dated

May 1994, which says: "On the whole, we find this to be a comprehensive, well-drafted

and well-conceived law."

The report, from the Criminal Division of the US Justice Department, said "we

do not have a background or expertise on Cambodian law; some of our remarks will

undoubtedly reflect this failing."

Lawyers who have seen the report say the department makes it clear Cambodia would

be on the "right path" in passing the law.

In some areas the department said the law might be "unduly severe": for

instance, jail terms might be considered too high for personal consumption of some

drugs. In other areas - for instance, talking about "suspicion" rather

than "probable cause" - lawyers in Phnom Penh say the department has no

conception of what the unsophisticated reality is in Cambodia in policing and the

courts.

"The US has told Cambodia in some places it could soften the law, and in some

places they could go harder. But in the substantive issues where democratic and human

rights could be abused, they say nothing," said one lawyer.

Juan Pablo Ordonez, a Colombian-born human rights lawyer working in Cambodia, said

the Cambodian law was similiar to anti-drug laws passed in Colombia in the early

80s "that were basically written inside the US Embassy."

In Colombia, "the laws got worse", including provisions for secret witnesses

and "faceless judges... but it all started with laws as bad as this [Cambodian]

one," he said.

Ordondez said such laws did not stop the drug problem, but only increased human rights

violations and made it easier to target political opponents.

"It increases corruption and human rights violations because it gives absolute

power to the police, who are not ready for that power, especially in a country where

wide abuses already happen and evidential proof is so unsophisticated."

Ordondez, who fled Colombia in 1991 after two attempts on his life, said it was in

the US interest to create an "enemy" out of the drug trade to ensure it

could continue to retain some control within a country.

"The US government is definitely [pressuring Cambodia] because it is part of

[the US] agenda to impose this kind of law," he said.

"There are people [inside the Cambodian government] who don't know about the

power this law will give them, but they will learn.

"This is another case of the US doing what they want in another country,"

he said.

Ordondez said the law served a political agenda for the US during an election year.

"[An election topic] will be about the war on drugs. [The Clinton administration]

will get called about certifying Cambodia, but they will be able to say 'yes, but

now Cambodia has this wonderful new law.' It serves [the US] purpose if this is made

law before [the] November [elections]."

He said in Colombia "we have had many cases of union and community leaders and

journalists jailed on trumped up charges thanks to laws like this. I don't see how

it's not going to happen here."

Other lawyers interviewed said there was already an adequate UNTAC-period drug law

that the Cambodians showed little will in enforcing properly.

ABA's Reynders said the ABA had told Phat Mau that there were some deficiencies in

the law. "I don't want to go into a laundry list about the kinds of things we've

seen, but there are a number of practices we consider questionable from a human rights

standpoint."

MP Son Chhay said there were many other laws - such as the nationality and anti-corruption

laws - and judicial training that were more important than a new drug law.

"We can't use it effectively. I personally don't have any belief or trust in

law. Many laws have been passed just for the sake of passing.

"We're not applying them in reality," Chhay said.

"I believe before anyone can be judged or punished - especially under this drug

law - there must be a fair judicial system.

"And we have a problem with officials dealing in drugs themselves," he

said.

"I'm very worried about the things we need more urgently than this [law],"

he said. "We must be aware that this could be used against anyone the government

doesn't like... there's no justice here."

When asked whether there had been US or other pressure to adopt the drug law, Chhay

said there had been laws pushed through "by international pressure... to make

sure a law is in place.

"The US declared Cambodia as a Number One drug trafficking country. Maybe this

law protects some reputations."

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