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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Police arrest 20 in double raids on popular drug-using site

Police arrest 20 in double raids on popular drug-using site

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081215_03.jpg

Two raids over the weekend have led to at least 20 arrests and complaints of serious police abuse. NGOs fear being unable to help drug-users if raids force them to go underground

Photo by: Tracey Shelton

A user injects drugs in the Boeung Trabek area of Phnom Penh in this file photo. The area, a haven for injection drug users, was this weekend targeted by police in a series of brutal raids.

MORE than 30 police officers surrounded a known drug injection site in Boeung Trabek, Phnom Penh, and detained at least 17 purported injection drug users, beating one person unconscious on Saturday morning, witnesses and local NGOs said.

A drug user who fled police told the Post that he escaped by running into an empty lot, but he was able to see police officers forcing men and one woman to sit in the street with their arms tied behind their backs, ready to be taken away to government treatment centres.

"Anyone who tried to run was hit with a police stick," he said.

Another another drug user at the scene confirmed that police officers came into the area, yelled commands and threatened to beat up anyone who moved. He identified the law enforcement as district-level police officers.

Three witnesses claimed the police specifically targeted people who had bicycles or cash that the police could steal. Two witnesses said they saw a person - who was found with a tool that could be used to steal bikes - beaten by the police. The police hit the man, estimated to be 30 years old, with night sticks and then repeatedly kicked him until he lost consciousness, they said.

Police raided the area a second time Sunday about 3:30pm, again targeting the injection drug users. This time, witnesses said they saw three drug users arrested and no police violence.

"The police want to get all of us," one drug user said shortly after fleeing the second raid.

A half-hour after the second raid, the normally crowded area where people openly inject heroin was empty. Over 36 hours, the police had either taken the drug users into custody or forced them underground.

It scares everyone. It makes it more difficult to render harm reduction services.

Graham Shaw, a technical officer at the World Health Organisation in charge of harm reduction, told the Post: "If we drive drug users underground, it makes it more difficult to provide them with HIV education, services and treatment."
David Harding, a drug specialist at Friends International, an NGO that provides sterile needles and education to drug-users, said: "Even though a relatively small proportion of drug users is arrested, it scares everyone. It makes it more difficult to render harm-reduction services."

The timing of the raids falls at the beginning of Neth Savoeun's tenure as the new National Police chief, and some fear this could signal a return to a law-enforcement policy that targets the capital's most vulnerable people - drug addicts.

"We're just bracing ourselves for more raids," Holly Bradford, founder of harm reduction NGO Korsang, said Sunday shortly before the second raid.

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