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Drug law passed as critics cry foul

T HE drug law, passed by the National Assembly on December 9, will generate human

rights abuses while leaving international drug trafficking unscathed, according to

critics.

The National Assembly voted 84-2 in favor of the drug law - a "pitiful performance,"

complained one human rights lawyer, "which reinforces the Assembly's image as

a rubber stamp body."

Many MPs didn't see the logic of or the need for the law, he said. He alleged most

voted for it because of pressure from the United States and the United Nations Drug

Control Program (UNDCP), which were involved in the law's drafting.

Cambodia was recently placed on the the US' "Watch List" of countries where

narcotics are suspected of being produced or trafficked to the US. If steps are not

taken by Cambodia authorities to show they are serious about fighting the drug trade,

the Kingdom could be prohibited from receiving US aid.

A recently-issued Human Rights Watch/Asia 1996 report on Cambodia also criticized

the then proposed drug law.

"The draft drug control law does not sufficiently take into account the current

deterioration of the human rights situation in Cambodia," the report said.

"Under current circumstances, where corruption is rampant and civil liberties

frequently ignored, it is doubtful that creating a law that grants more powers to

police without vigorously addressing the factors contributing to increased trafficking

will be an effective approach to resolving the narcotics problem in Cambodia."

In Phnom Penh, critics said the law will not affect international drug trafficking

because it doesn't address how to boost law enforcement.

"The US wants to keep Cambodia from becoming an international trans-shipment

point for drugs," the human rights lawyer said. "It has no interest in

[Cambodia's] domestic consumption. The intent of the law is supposedly to deal with

international narco drug traffickers but the law doesn't say that."

Stopping drug trafficking is a matter of law enforcement. Two years ago the UNDCP

and US could have helped with law enforcement, the observer argued, by strengthening

Cambodia's border controls, beefing up the Ministry of Interior's anti-drug unit,

providing proper equipment and training, and increasing the salaries of officials.

In addition, the Kingdom already has a basis for prosecuting drug-related offenses:

the UNTAC criminal code, which provides for a 5-15 year sentence for the sale or

distribution of certain drugs.

One observer supposed the presence of "boasters in the US Embassy who want to

say Cambodia is doing the right thing". Passing the drug law also provides Cambodia

a "fig leaf" to pretend it is doing something about the international drug

trade, he said. But without addressing law enforcement issues, drug trafficking will

not diminish and the issue about whether "adequate steps have been taken"

will be revisited in several years, he predicted.

A US Embassy spokesperson was not available for comment at Post press time. The embassy

has previously expressed firm support for the law, but declined to answer specific

criticisms of it.

The drug law will also generate human rights abuses, according to another lawyer,

who said it will be an "excellent tool" for authorities to wield against

their opponents or to simply demand bribes.

He called the US government "absolutely reprehensible" for promoting such

a law, saying: "It contradicts their stated position about human rights in Cambodia."

He cited as one example an article that allows the anti-drug authority to keep assets

confiscated during an arrest. "This will undoubtedly increase corruption,"

the lawyer said. "This gives the government every incentive to seize assets

as well as drugs whether the person is guilty or not."

Other complaints about the law raised by the lawyer include:

  • "Absurd" prison sentences which do not recognize the scale of the drug

    offense. It requires a minimum of 10 years jail for offences involving drugs, except

    for cannabis. For example, a criminal who sells $100 of cocaine can receive the same

    10-year sentence as one who sells millions of dollars of heroin. Also, the law provides

    11 different reasons for doubling the sentence, so a 20-40 year sentence could become

    the norm.

  • Court orders for search and seizure are not required in all cases. Assets suspected

    of being "directly or indirectly related to the crime" can be confiscated.

    This provision is too broadly defined, he argued.

  • Violating the Constitution. Cambodia's constitution prohibits phone tapping,

    but the UNDCP noted that other countries allow phone tapping to fight the drug trade

    so, it should be included in the Kingdom's law. The lawyer acknowledged the scope

    for some extent of phone tapping to combat the drug trade but this law "goes

    too far."

  • Night-time residential searches. Recognizing that many Cambodians mistrust people

    wearing uniforms on their property in the night and the prevalence of firearms in

    the Kingdom, UNTAC prohibited night-time searches. The new law permits them.

"There will be cases of police officers shot and killed because they were

executing this nighttime search. This is a straight forward public safety issue,"

the lawyer said.

Another lawyer summed up the law by saying: "The US and the UNDCP misdiagnosed

the problem and misdirected the provisions."

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