Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Um Sopheap issued a two-page letter on Wednesday explaining his choice to release on bail 13 alleged drug users. The letter followed local media reports that anti-drug police were angered by the decision.
The explanation also came two days after a top anti-drug police official laid a portion of the blame for persistent drug crime rates at the feet of the courts, which he characterised as being too soft on drug offenders. However, in his letter, Sopheap argued that the users’ release was in line with current legislation.
“In this case, the accused face a jail term from one to six months . . . According to the law, pre-trial detention applies only to those who face more than a year of jail term,” he wrote, adding that the latest drug laws treat users as victims and oblige the prosecutor to order them to get treatment, reserving the right to charge them if they refuse.
The 13 users refused, so, Sopheap wrote, “the prosecutor decided to charge them. The court will summon them to a hearing in 15 days.” In the meantime, they are out on bail.
Despite the earlier reports of anger, police were tight-lipped yesterday. “I don’t want to comment on this. I’ll just say briefly that I respect the law,” said Mam Hong, chief of police in Sen Sok district, where some of the suspects were arrested.
Sopheap could not be reached for comment yesterday, but a spokesman for the court, prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth, said of the releases, “This is what we have been applying all the time. We did not break the law, and the news is confusing the public.”
Chanpiseth suggested that one reason for the court’s policy of bailing users was overcrowding in the Kingdom’s notorious rehabilitation facilities. He said a representative of the scandal-ridden “My Chance” rehab centre had called to say there were no more beds.
However, “My Chance” director Mom Chandany said that while there are currently 800 people housed at the centre, they still had two rooms available.
But David Harding, who has been working with Cambodian drug users since 2000, said he was “gobsmacked” that the 13 bailed users’ cases wound up in front of a prosecutor at all, saying that more commonly drug users were detained without any due process whatsoever.
“The big issue is that it’s all extrajudicial,” he said. “It’s the police, the Ministry of Social Affairs or family members who deliver them to a place of incarceration, where they stay until it’s deemed they can leave. They never see a judge.”
Harding’s concerns echo a 2013 Human Rights Watch report that found that drug users often face “arbitrary arrest and detention, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment”.
Harding said yesterday that the best way for authorities to deal with drug users is to offer voluntary rehabilitation.
“Many of these people don’t need to go into any kind of incarceration.”
Additional reporting by Jack Davies