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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Drug crackdown pushes courts and prisons to breaking point

Cambodian police officials throw drugs onto a fire in Phnom Penh on June 26.
Cambodian police officials throw drugs onto a fire in Phnom Penh on June 26. Afp

Drug crackdown pushes courts and prisons to breaking point

A new crackdown on drugs has netted more than one thousand drug users and dealers throughout the country. But can crowded prisons and busy courts keep up?

Nguyen Thy Yem and her husband, Bouy Thanh Men, have been using drugs since they married a decade ago. Together, they do meth and heroin in the backstreets of the capital. But Thanh Men insists that he and his wife are users, not dealers. Nonetheless, his wife now faces drug-dealing charges after being arrested on January 10.

She and four others scooped up in the raid in Chbar Ampov district are just a few of the many recently snared in a new nationwide crackdown on drugs. She is also one of the many languishing in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar prison.

In the first two weeks of the year, authorities say they have arrested more than a thousand dealers and drug users. While analysts and government officials recognise a rise in drug use, they say the recent explosion in arrests could exacerbate two already thorny problems: prison overcrowding and a backlog of drug cases stuck in the courts.

Cambodia’s drug campaign is going to have a “negative impact” on “already crowded” prisons, said Nouth Savna, the spokesman and deputy director general for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons.

At Prey Sar, where Thy Yem is detained, the prison is now more than two and a half times over its capacity of 1,800. The situation has become so grim that inmates are being transferred to provincial prisons based on preference or relatives’ request.

“The number goes up every day, not down,” Savna said. This is not just a local problem, he says. Prisons in Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey and Battambang were each “quite over” capacity in December, before the crackdown began. “I don’t know for how long we can cope with this method, because our [prisoner totals in the] provinces are also going up in numbers,” he said.

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Police officers at a conference on drug law at the Ministry of Interior earlier this month. Heng Chivoan

Drug crackdowns, such as the one recently launched in Cambodia, promote overcrowding in the prison system, said Gloria Lai, senior policy officer at the UK-based International Drug Policy Consortium.

“We see this in Thailand already, which has a prison crisis on its hands: [the] world’s sixth-largest prison population with over 70 percent imprisoned for drugs,” she said. “Prison is not the answer.”

Among the contributing factors for the overcrowding in the prisons is the “congestion building up” from the increasing number of drug arrests and pre-trial detention, Savna conceded.

As of December, 8,902 inmates out of the close to 22,000 countrywide prison population were being detained for drug-related crimes. That proportion is close to 10 percent higher than the year before.

Add to that another thousand newly detained, along with new arrests daily, and a crisis could be looming.

Pre-trial woes
The use of pre-trial detention has long been an issue in Cambodia. According to Savna, as of mid-December, nearly 5,000 inmates in the country were waiting for their first hearing. In 2014, Cambodia’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that some prisoners were found to have been in pre-trial detention for up to a year and a half.

To address this, that same year, senior judges helped develop a new tool, which was distributed to courts throughout the country: a form containing a series of questions designed to help judges determine which suspects should be subject to pre-trial detention. It instructed judges to carefully analyse a case before deciding to send someone to pre-trial detention.

The purpose was to ensure that all judges use pre-trial detention as a last resort. Close to three years later, the new tool has not had the desired effect.

A review of its use was carried out in July 2016 by officials from the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Council of Magistracy and OHCHR by visiting five provincial courts in Prey Veng, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Battambang and Kratie, according to Sovanna Mann with OHCHR.

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Bouy Thanh Men’s wife was arrested this month in a bust in Phnom Penh. Eliah Lillis

Officials met with 47 judges and prosecutors, many of whom showed an increased awareness and use of the recommendations, in particular in Kratie province.

“Some judges, however, questioned the need to justify pre-trial detention and complained that using the form was time-consuming and would limit their judicial discretion,” Mann said.

Other judges requested additional training on how they might better use the form in their decision-making.

Nearly three years later, the problem has not abated. More than one of every three inmates detained as of last November were being held in pre-trial detention. Just 30 percent had received a trial and verdict, according to government statistics. The Ministry of Justice did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

“Pre-trial detention increases the number of detainees in prison, which are increasingly overcrowded,” Mann said. “This is severely straining the prison system, making it even more difficult to ensure the rights of prisoners and detainees to basic services.”

Drug use on the rise
Despite pre-existing issues with capacity, drug authorities determined that it was time for a crackdown. Meas Vyrith, secretary general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said the new crackdown was being driven by the current levels of drug use in the country, which officials “recognise” is on the rise.

Last year, there were 10,000 drug-related arrests made and the government contends that the number of “addicts” rose by a third over the course of the year.

The big question for drug experts is how much of the current crackdown will actually target dealers. During the first 15 days of the drug campaign, there were 313 cases related to drug dealing, involving 688 arrests, Vyrith said. Another 220 cases were related to drug use, leading to the arrest of 665 people.

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A photo posted on Facebook by the Chbar Ampov district police of seized drugs. Photo supplied

David Harding, an independent drug expert with years of experience working in Cambodia, said that generally, law enforcement will only go after drug users and small-scale dealers, and the new initiative seems to be “no exception, which means it will have no impact on drug supply, even in the medium term”.

“The judicial system in Cambodia currently doesn’t have sufficient capacity to manage criminal procedure under normal circumstances,” he said. “This initiative is likely to … put even more pressure on the system.”

Lai, with the International Drug Policy Consortium, had a similar view. She said arresting a large number of drug users “will create a burden on the entire criminal justice system, from police to prosecutors to judges to prisons”.

Furthermore, punishment such as arrest and imprisonment does not deter or put an end to drug use, as evident in continually rising rates of drug use in countries such as Cambodia, China and Singapore, Lai said.

“In fact, punishment exacerbates the root causes of drug use amongst some people, such as marginalisation, stigmatisation and poverty,” she said.

Savna contends that dealers do not make up a “big amount” of those targeted, but that it isn’t easy for the police to distinguish between users and sellers.

Nguyen Young Long, 29, says he is one of the small fishes. He was arrested on January 3 but then released when a urine test failed to detect the heroin in his system. Three others were arrested during the same raid, he said, and all but one were released.

This week, he picked up new needles at the Korsang drop-in centre in Chbar Ampov district – a service the centre provides free of cost to prevent HIV transmission. He added that arresting drug users was not going to fix the problem.

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A police car enters the grounds of Prey Sar in 2014. Hong Menea

An anti-drug official at the Ministry of Interior, who asked not to be named, said officials were classifying drug users by the severity of their addiction. They separate light and heavy drug users based on the police record of the arrested suspect and the suspect’s confession of the number of years that they have been using drugs.

“If we arrest them, and they confess that they had used drugs for four or five years, that is a heavy user, which means that [the suspect] must be sent to a rehabilitation centre,” the official said, referring to a government-run facility for drug users.

“Light users” who have families must have their parents promise that they will take the suspect to seek treatment at a community-based centre, but if the suspect is arrested by police again, the offender will be sent to rehabilitation or jail, the official added.

Sou Sochenda, a policy specialist with the NGO Khana, challenged whether this kind of classification to measure the level of drug use is “appropriate”. “There should be a clinical assessment [developed] by medical professionals or guidelines,” she said.

Independent expert Harding said specific training and an understanding of drugs and drug use is required to make an informed assessment.

“Currently, only those providing services to and having direct contact with people who use drugs have the capacity to develop and provide assessment,” he said. “Anyone else is just guessing.”

A treatment conundrum
Choub Sok Chamreun, executive director for Khana, said his organisation was not opposing the drug campaign but that it was asking for engagement with civil society organisations that work with this population to ensure that people who are addicted to substances get the treatment they need.

“Dealing with drug addiction requires medical professionals,” he said. “Law enforcement alone won’t be the solution.”

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An alley in Chbar Ampov district, where Nguyen Thy Yem was arrested. Eliah Lillis

As part of the current drug campaign, the government plans to build three new, better-equipped rehabilitation centres, Vyrith said. It already has 20 hectares of land in Sihanoukville near National Road 4 for the first centre, he added.

Officials are now negotiating with neighbouring countries to help bear the construction costs, Vyrith said.

Under an April 2015 sub-decree to create the committee for drug treatment, more than 100 health centres and referral hospitals were designated as community-based treatment centres for drug users, according to Chhum Vannarith, the undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Health.

About 2,000 drug users, countrywide, receive services at the community-based treatment centres, Savna said. However, those centres are in dire need of a massive injection of government investment, according to Sok Chamreun. “[The centres] need support; they need medication, and they need staff,” he said.

Vannarith acknowledged that services at the community-based centres are still limited and they require more government funding. “We still face limitations,” he said. “We are still working with NGOs . . . [and] the Ministry of Health plans to expand more and more.”

In conjunction with such measures, experts say judicial reform is essential. According to Savna, Cambodia is still far from developing alternative sentencing programs such as proper probation and parole, but officials are looking at such initiatives now.

“Building more prisons is a temporary solution,” he said. “You can build more prisons and the number of inmates will just continue to go up.”

Additional reporting by Niem Chheng and Vandy Muong

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