Cambodia: 'War on Drugs' is rife with torture, corruption and on brink of triggering a COVID-19 catastrophe - New Report

‘War on drugs’ has led to human rights abuses and dangerously overfilled detention facilities in the midst of the pandemic

Cambodia’s largest prison facility, Phnom Penh’s CC1, exceeded 9,500 prisoners last month – nearly five times its estimated capacity of 2,050

All detention facilities are at high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and many detainees have pre-existing conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis 

One woman described how she and her one-year-old daughter were held in prison: ‘It was so hard to raise [her] inside. She wanted freedom… She often got fever and flu [and] because we had no space, she slept on top of my body’

‘[The] ‘war on drugs’ is an unmitigated disaster – it rests upon systematic human rights abuses and has created a bounty of opportunities for corrupt officials’ - Nicholas Bequelin

The Cambodian government’s three-year long “war on drugs” campaign has fuelled a rising tide of human rights abuses, dangerously overfilled detention facilities and led to an alarming public health situation – even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds – while failing to curb drug use, a new report by Amnesty International published today reveals.

The new 78-page report, Substance abuses: The human cost of Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign, documents how the authorities prey on poor and marginalised people, arbitrarily carry out arrests, routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and dispatch those who can’t buy their freedom to severely overcrowded prisons and pseudo “rehabilitation centres” in which detainees are denied healthcare and are subjected to severe abuse.

Nicholas Bequelin, South-East Asia Regional Director at Amnesty International, said:

“Cambodia’s ‘war on drugs’ is 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.

“Using abusive approaches to punish people who use drugs is not only wrong, it is utterly ineffective. It is high time that Cambodian authorities heed the widely available scientific evidence showing that all-punitive law enforcement campaigns simply exacerbate social harms.”

A six-month campaign now in its third year

Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, launched his anti-drugs campaign in January 2017, just weeks after a state visit by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, during which the two leaders pledged to cooperate in combating drugs. 

According to government officials, the campaign aims to reduce drug use and related harms in Cambodia, including by arresting people who use drugs “en masse”. As recently as March this year, Interior Minister Sar Kheng called for legal action against all “drug addicts and dealers in small-scale drug use and distribution cases.”

Two parallel systems, one devastating campaign and no due process

In the course of its investigation, Amnesty spoke to dozens of victims who described being subjected to two parallel systems of punishment: some were arbitrarily detained without charge in drug detention centres, while others were convicted through the criminal justice system and sent to prison.

Many people described how they were detained as a result of police raids on poor neighbourhoods or city “beautification” sweeps that leave people who are poor, homeless, and struggling with drug dependence especially at risk of arrest.

Sreyneang, a 30-year-old woman from Phnom Penh, told Amnesty how she was tortured following her arbitrary arrest during a drugs raid: “They asked me how many times I sold drugs… The police officer said if I didn’t confess, he would use the taser on me again.”

Those subjected to criminal prosecution consistently described legal processes which made a mockery of fair trial rights, including convictions based on flimsy and inadequate evidence and summary trials conducted in the absence of defence lawyers. Many accused people had a very limited understanding of their rights, putting them at even greater risk of human rights violations.

One interviewee, Vuthy, was only 14 years old at the time of his arrest. After being arrested in a drugs raid, he was beaten by several police officers and charged with drug trafficking. He described his investigation and trial: “I didn’t understand the process and what the different court visits meant. The first time I understood what was happening was when they told me my prison sentence. Nobody ever asked me if I had a lawyer or gave me one.”

Overcrowded prisons: A public health catastrophe

The overcrowding crisis in Cambodia’s detention and prison facilities is causing serious violations of the right to health of people deprived of their liberty. It often amounts to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment under international human rights law.

Last month, the nationwide prison population had skyrocketed by 78% to over 38,990 people since the campaign’s start. Cambodia’s largest prison facility, Phnom Penh’s CC1, exceeded 9,500 prisoners – nearly five times its estimated capacity of 2,050. 

A woman named Maly described how she and her one-year-old daughter were held in Phnom Penh’s CC2 prison: “It was so hard to raise my daughter inside. She wanted to move around, she wanted more space, she wanted to see the outside. She wanted freedom… She often got fever and flu. Because we had no space, my child normally slept on top of my body.” 

While the total population in Cambodia’s drug detention centres is not publicised, all testimonies obtained by Amnesty suggest that overcrowding inside these centres is just as severe as inside prisons. 

All detention facilities are at high risk of major outbreaks of COVID-19, and many detainees have pre-existing conditions such as HIV and tuberculosis that put them at increased risk. Long, a former CC1 inmate, told Amnesty: “If one person got a respiratory infection, within a few days everyone in the cell got it. It was a breeding ground for illness.” 

Exclusive video footage from inside a Cambodian prison, published by Amnesty last month, showed extreme overcrowding and inhumane conditions of detention. In response, a spokesman for the prisons department conceded that “every day is like a ticking time bomb” for a COVID-19 outbreak in detention facilities.

Yet to date, the Cambodian authorities have failed to take any action to reduce the prison population, even as regional neighbours including Thailand, Myanmar and Indonesia have released tens of thousands of people in detention who are at risk, including people held on drug-related charges.

Torture in drug detention centres

Although drug detention centres claim to provide treatment for people with drug dependence, in practice they operate as sites of abuse. Every individual interviewed by Amnesty provided detailed accounts of physical abuse amounting to torture or other ill-treatment committed by centre staff or so-called “room leaders” – inmates entrusted by staff to enforce discipline.

Thyda, who was held in the Orkas Khnom drug detention centre in Phnom Penh last year, told Amnesty: “This [violence] happened to everyone and it was normal. Violence like this was part of the daily routine; part of their programme.”

Another, Sarath, described his first day in a drug detention centre, where he was sent at the age of 17: “As soon as the guard left, the room leader started to beat me. I was knocked unconscious so I can’t remember what happened after that.”

Drug detention centres have also been dogged by reports of sexual violence and deaths in custody. Amnesty’s investigation uncovered multiple new allegations of such deaths. Phanith, a former room leader, told how he witnessed an inmate “chained by the hands and the feet so that he could not move around. And the building leader beat him like that until he died.”

Time to end punitive approaches to people who use drugs

The Cambodian authorities’ hard-line approach to people who use drugs has failed in its primary aim of reducing drug use and related harms, and instead has created a catastrophic public health and human rights crisis for the country’s poorest and most at-risk populations.

it is essential that all compulsory drug detention centres be shut down promptly and permanently. People detained there must be released immediately with sufficient provisions of health and social services made available to them. 

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