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Mixed results in Cambodia’s drug war: officials

Interior Minister Sar Kheng chairs an annual meeting of the National Authority for Combating Drugs yesterday.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng chairs an annual meeting of the National Authority for Combating Drugs yesterday. Hong Menea

Mixed results in Cambodia’s drug war: officials

Senior government figures yesterday noted major flaws in an ongoing drug crackdown, among them a lack of rehabilitation for incarcerated users, during a day-long review of the campaign yesterday.

The government also proposed establishing five ill-defined “white villages” – or drug-free locations – on the border with Laos and Vietnam, as well as selling off confiscated motorbikes from detainees awaiting trial.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday said “alternatives” to overcrowded prisons had to be found and suggested that detainees’ motorbikes should be sold off to both free up storage space and create revenue.

“We want to sell them at a low price and take the money to the bank and take the interest,” he said, adding that if the accused were deemed innocent, they would be paid back, and if not, the seized money would be used to build more rehabilitation centres.

Sar Kheng also grappled with the issue of severe overcrowding in prisons.

“It is possible we only arrest the dangerous masterminds, and the less-dangerous, we educate and send back to do community service,” he said, but quickly added that such a strategy was “impossible” because the community would “beat them to death if they hear that one is a thief”.

He said it was also a possibility to reduce punishments and increase pardons, but stressed that “if we do not arrest many, it is insecure, and we also need to take responsibility”.

Some 17,800 people have been arrested in the country’s ongoing drug crackdown, more than half of whom were merely drug users. The government has announced the crackdown will continue at least until the July elections.

Read more: Six months on, is Cambodia’s war on drugs working?

A National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) report, circulated at the meeting yesterday, said there was “no action” on providing life skills or vocational training to detainees, follow-up to treatment was irregular and unclear, and rehabilitation in correctional centres was “not working well”.

NACD President Ke Kim Yan said thousands of those detained were going without treatment – and when users did get treatment, it was often sub-standard.

“The problem is the quality. As I said, 16 percent of them went back to drugs,” he said.

“Where are those who re-integrated into society from the rehab centres? According to law, the treatment needs to follow up for two years . . . If they are still addicted, they should be under [the authority’s] control.”

Led by the Ministry of Health, the government has said it will expand community-based drug treatment coverage throughout the country to coincide with stepped-up efforts to crack down on drugs. But fewer than 3,000 received such treatment nationwide through mid-December last year, a ministry official previously told The Post.

Pin Sokhom, from the NGO Mith Samlanh, said his organisation has long been aware of overcrowding in prisons due to the zealous arrests of drug users, rather than just traffickers.

“I welcome that the government is trying to solve the problem,” he said.

Human Rights Watch Asia Deputy Director Phil Robertson said the conditions in Cambodian prisons were “at breaking point”.

“Cambodia’s prosecutors and courts should urgently wake up to the reality that throwing drug users into prison for months or years of pre-trial detention doesn’t solve anything,” he said in an email, urging for Cambodia to adopt a rights-respecting approach complete with community-based care and counselling.

Robertson also balked at the suggestion of selling off suspects’ possessions as it constituted “a blatant violation of the presumption of innocence”.

Setting an appropriate bail amount would be a better option. However, funding more rehabilitation centres, he said, would be “a very bad idea” due to consistent reports of abuse.

“Until Cambodia can end the abuse in its existing drug detention centres, it should not build any more,” he said.

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