This article originally appeared on VICE Asia.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has gained international notoriety for its inordinately harsh penalties, extrajudicial killings, and other atrocious human rights violations. Yet, an equally appalling anti-drug campaign in a Southeast Asian country has gone largely unnoticed, even as it’s causing a potential disaster amid the coronavirus pandemic.
On the first day of 2017, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen launched an anti-drug campaign. This came just a few weeks after a state visit by Duterte, during which the two heads of state agreed to cooperate in solving drug-related problems.
Since then, Cambodian authorities have engaged in a Duterte-esque crusade against drug-related offences, meting out unduly severe punishments to suspects without due process.
A report published on May 12 by Amnesty International offers a sobering look at the “human cost of Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign,” and how, like in the Philippines, the poor are disproportionately affected by the administration of drug laws.
Through first-hand interviews with the victims of Cambodia’s anti-drug campaign, the report paints a horrific picture of rights abuses amidst an absence of police accountability, in a system rife with bribery and the unnecessary use of force.
Sreyneang, a 30-year-old woman, told Amnesty International how a cop violently extracted a confession from her. “The police officer said if I didn’t confess, he would use the taser on me again," she said.
Vuthy, an interviewee who was only 14 when he was arrested, was beaten by police and charged with drug trafficking without being accorded a lawyer. “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,” he 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,” said Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin.
Faced with the Amnesty International exposé, Cambodian officials questioned the accuracy of the report and argued that the drug war takes precedence over human rights.
The government's crackdown in 2017 led to 80 percent more arrests compared to the previous year, and is now the leading cause of overcrowding in prisons nationwide.
Since the campaign started, Cambodia’s prison population has risen by 78 percent. Within the first three months of 2019, Cambodian anti-drug police dealt with 2,047 drug offences and arrested 4,434 people. As of March 2020, Cambodia’s prison population has increased to close to 39,000 people. In 2016, it was at 21,989.
Last month, Amnesty International released a video showing the extent of overcrowding in Cambodian prisons.
In the time of a deadly global pandemic, Cambodia's overpopulated prisons are now a ticking time bomb.
"These deplorable conditions make a mockery of 'physical distancing,’” said David Griffiths, director in the Office of the Secretary-General at Amnesty International, pointing to the Cambodian government’s lack of attention to prisoners’ welfare during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hun Sen’s anti-drug campaign prides itself on strict, blanket detention for drug-related offences. However, not only has blind adherence to drug law enforcement engendered systematic human rights violations, it is also now threatening to erupt into a national public health crisis.
To reduce the risk of the coronavirus breaking out within densely populated prison facilities, Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia have released prisoners by the tens of thousands. In May, even the Philippines released close to 10,000 prisoners over coronavirus concerns.
Meanwhile, Cambodian authorities have not taken steps to address overcrowding in their prisons.