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Cambodia's forgotten war on drugs enters fourth year

More than 50,000 arrested on suspicion of using or selling narcotics: Amnesty

Nuth Sopheap holds up a family picture that includes her son, who was arrested last year as part of Cambodia's war on drugs. (Photo by Shaun Turton)

PHNOM PENH -- In the predawn darkness of Aug. 8 last year, Nuth Sopheap arrived at a police station and saw her son Minea in handcuffs. The 19-year-old would not look his mother in the eye.

Hours before, by a roadside not far from his family's home in Kandal, the province that rings the capital, Phnom Penh, Minea had been arrested with a friend. The latter, Sopheap would find out later, was found carrying a small amount of methamphetamine.

Via a relative, Sopheap was soon told the "negotiating" price -- the bribe required to secure her son's release from police custody -- was $300. It had been three years since Sopheap, for health reasons, left her job as a seamstress at a garment factory. Her husband's income from delivering vegetables to market barely supported the family.

"I was totally broke," Sopheap, 41, told the Nikkei Asian Review last week at the family's house, where she lives with her husband and 13-year-old daughter. Minea is in Phnom Penh's main prison -- which is 500% over capacity -- awaiting a trial date.

"This drug campaign, it's arresting for the sake of arresting, it's not to help. It is targeted at poor people. Big people, they don't go to jail. If they arrest the rich kids, they can afford to offer the money straight away."

In January 2017, weeks after meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen launched his country's own war on drugs.

While Duterte's deadly drug war has drawn widespread condemnation, Cambodia's campaign -- first announced as a six-month crackdown, but now entering its fourth year -- has gone largely unmarked by the international community.

In a report released Wednesday, Amnesty International details the "rising tide" of human rights abuses linked to the prolonged clampdown which, it says, targets the "poor and marginalized." Through interviews with 51 people detained during the crackdown, the group describes cases of wrongful arrest, torture and allegations of fatal beatings in custody.

Amnesty's regional director, Nicholas Bequelin, called the campaign an "unmitigated disaster".

"It rests upon systematic human rights abuses and has created a bounty of opportunities for corrupt and poorly paid officials in the justice system, while doing nothing for public health and safety," he said.

Since it began, 55,770 people have been arrested on suspicion of using or selling drugs. The surge has swelled Cambodia's already overcrowded prisons, which experts now fear could be time bombs for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Cambodia's prison population has increased by 78% since the campaign started, from 21,900 at the end of 2016 to nearly 39,000 in March 2020. The country's notoriously cramped and squalid prisons have an estimated total capacity of just 26,593.

Government data shows 57% of all inmates are held on drug-related charges. Of the 21,740 imprisoned under the anti-drug campaign between 2017 and last year, at least 39% were for minor, non-trafficking offences.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during a signing ceremony between the countries in Phnom Penh in December 2016.    © Reuters

But official statistics are a poor barometer in a legal system characterized by corruption and a lack of due process, with defendants regularly convicted in the absence of a lawyer and on flimsy evidence.

Running parallel with the criminal system are "rehabilitation centers." Decisions on whether to send someone to one of the seven such state-run facilities is arbitrary and rests on vague legal provisions, Amnesty found.

Despite their names, the centers lack health care provisions. Individuals admitted to them -- often homeless people or sex workers picked up in mass raids meant to beautify the streets -- are detained for an indeterminate period from six months to two years.

The facilities are rife with abuse and "extreme violence." Multiple interviewees told Amnesty of beatings meted out by "room leaders" -- inmates elevated to positions of authority -- including a ritual of "welcome beatings" when new inmates arrive and physical punishments for those who try to escape.

Several detainees reported witnessing deaths of fellow inmates. One interviewee, identified as Ratha, described how a detainee designated as a "security chief" led a fatal 20-person gang beating of his roommate, who had been accused of planning to escape.

"They beat his head against the wall and kicked him," he recalled. "I was the one who tried to wake him because I saw the water from the toilet was leaking onto him. When I tried to wake him, he was cold and stiff."

The government has shown little sign of easing the campaign. In March, Interior Minister Sar Kheng demanded that authorities continue to arrest and process small-scale offenders.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin declined to comment on the findings of the report, as the government had not been consulted on the study. He said the large number of people arrested meant the campaign had been "a success."

Amnesty has called for a review of the crackdown to make it conform with international human rights law.

The group pointed to a "glimmer of hope," noting the government last year began rolling out a community-based drug treatment program. But the service remained under-resourced, it said.

Meanwhile, Sopheap waits for her son to call from prison and tell her a trial date has been set.

While telling her story, she fetched piles of photographs and paper from the house. There's her identity card, recording her as an 11-year-old unaccompanied minor at "Site 2," one of the camps set up for refugees following the downfall of the Pol Pot regime. There are family photos -- the four of them dressed for a wedding. There's a certificate showing a photo of Minea in primary school and attesting to his completion of a course in Microsoft Word 2010.

"He wanted to work with computers," she said. "But in high school, he started hanging out with bad kids."

Although he was not carrying drugs when he was arrested, Sopheap said Minea had struggled with substance abuse and would disappear for days. But she still has hope for her son. During their visits in prison, he tells his mother not to worry about him, and to take care of herself.

"He was always compassionate. When he was young, he went to the airport with a relative, who bought him a sandwich and he saved it for me, for when I finished work," Sopheap said.

"I want my children to have a better life than me."

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