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Drug law in final stages

Government officials expect to finalise the Kingdom’s controversial draft drug law next week before sending it for approval from Prime Minister Hun Sen, a Ministry of Interior official said yesterday.

The legislation has been at the Council of Ministers since early last year and is now being reviewed by an inter-ministerial committee. Khieu Samon, acting director of the anti-drug department at the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that this process was in the final stages.

“We are about 95 percent finished, and we will need one morning next week to have a final discussion among the inter-ministerial officials at the Council of Ministers before the prime minister's approval,” Khieu Samon said. “We expect the law to be approved by the prime minister in one or two months.”

A copy of the most recent version of the law was unavailable yesterday, though a draft copy circulated late last year was roundly criticised by human rights groups, who said it would lay the groundwork for further abuses within Cambodia’s draconian system of drug treatment.

Among the alarming elements of last year's draft is a provision defining a drug addict as any person who “consumes drugs and is under the influence of drugs”. The draft also contains no provisions exempting needle exchanges and other harm-reduction organisations from prosecution under six articles relating to the “facilitation” of drug use.

Also of concern is an article allowing drug users to be forced into involuntary treatment for up to two years. While the draft claims that treatment and rehabilitation can only take place with the consent of drug users, it adds that treatment can be compelled in “special cases”, for the “benefit of the drug addict” or for the “common interest”.

The Kingdom’s drug treatment centres came under scrutiny last year following a report from Human Rights Watch documenting grave abuses – including beatings, rapes and forced donations of blood – to which detainees were allegedly subjected.

Worrying for many observers is the prospect that under the new drug law, increasing numbers of Cambodians may be detained involuntarily at centres that are proven incubators for rights violations.

“In the past two years, Cambodia has been condemned internationally for torturing drug users in ineffective compulsory treatment centers,” Joe Amon, director of the health and human rights division at HRW, said in an email.

“With this law, they can either recognise that this is the wrong approach, or they can blindly continue pursuing policies that don’t work and put them in violation of their human rights obligations.”

Local United Nations agencies have submitted a list of recommendations to the government on the draft law that were “aiming at supporting … voluntary and evidence-based forms of treatment”, Olivier Lermet, country manager for the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an email yesterday. He declined to comment on the latest draft of the law.

Pieter van Maaren, country representative for the World Health Organisation, said he had not seen the latest version of the law and was unsure of whether the UN recommendations had been incorporated.
“I think that the UN has made it very clear that the comments and suggestions we have made are real concerns for us, and we trust that the government is taking that seriously,” he said.

The news on the drug law follows a speech yesterday by Interior Minister Sar Kheng before roughly 400 government officials in Phnom Penh in which he excoriated those in charge of drafting the legislation for not completing the process earlier.

“Why does the law meet an obstacle? Do you have willingness to combat drugs or not?” he said, calling for the law to be finalised within six months. “If we still delay the law, the implementation will not be effective. Be careful or we will be accused of lacking will.”

Disagreements between officials in the drafting process have held up the law, Sar Kheng added, citing as an example the question of whether low-level drug offences will be punished through fines or jail time. The minister did not specify the offences to which he was referring, but said that officials had come down in favour of incarceration in this instance.

“If [it is a choice between] one month in jail or a fine of 1 million riel (US$245), we will choose both, because our police try to work so hard to arrest the perpetrators,” he said.

Khieu Samon declined to comment yesterday on whether elements of the draft law that have been flagged for criticism from rights groups will be amended in the final version.

“This law is made by us, the government. Whatever we do, we want the law to be acceptable for all and to follow the conditions of our country,” he said.

“A drug offence is a crime. We will never tolerate that.”

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