Since the crackdown on drug trafficking was started by the Ministry of Interior in January, cases have been piling up in the courts and the prisons have been packed with suspects.
Seu Vanny, a deputy prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said the large amount of drug suspects arrested has created an overload of work for judges and prosecutors.
Ms Vanny said court officials have been working on holidays and every weekend in an attempt to clear the backlog of cases.
“Among the prisoners who were sent to the court for questioning or trial, offences involving drug use and trafficking were the highest number.
“These are marked as first class crimes,” she told Khmer Times. “Offences involving theft are marked second class.”
“Most of the suspects who were arrested and sent to court for questioning were also drug users and traffickers,” she added.
“For those who are drug users, prosecutors charge them and send them to municipal rehabilitation centres to try to get them off drugs. But for those whose cases relate to drug trafficking or possession, they are sent to prison to await trial.”
Ly Lipmeng, a judge at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said the number of drug inmates has increased significantly.
“As I have noted in the trials, the number of drug prisoners is very high,” he said.
“Among the people that I have tried, about 90 percent of their cases were related to drugs. The next most prevalent cases were related to thefts,” he added.
However, he declined to comment on the procedures of the trials or their judgements.
Kong Sophal, a police officer at Prey Sar prison, said there were now about 7,000 inmates at the facility.
He said more than 90 percent of them were jailed for drug offences, while the other 10 percent were in for crimes ranging from murder, theft, fraud, human trafficking, procurement and other crimes.
He said that between 50 and 100 prisoners were sent to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for trial or further questioning every day, in the mornings and afternoons.
“Among the prisoners we take to the municipal court every day, 90 percent of them are drug suspects,” he said.
He said that at times, because the number of prisoners sent to court for trial was too much, the judges could not finish their hearings and trials were delayed.
That has created more trouble and concern for the prison guards transporting suspects from the jail to the court and back.
He said the government working hours are from 7am to 11am and from 1pm to 5pm, but sometimes a trial can drag on until 12.30pm or 6pm.
“Sometimes the judge comes late and starts the trial late. Both our prison guards and prisoners have not had lunch,” he said.
He added that according the rules governing prisoners, they have to be sent back to eat at the prison after their trials.
But because of traffic and the long road from the court to Prey Sar prison, the prisoners often do not have lunch or dinner on time, he said.
Nhim Chantha, a police officer stationed at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said that at least 50 suspects, most of them involved in drug cases, were arrested and sent to the court for questioning every day.
He added that most of the suspects were youths.
“Now my work is no holiday because there are many suspects who were arrested in other districts and sent to the court for questioning every day,” he said.
“So we have to work without any time off.”
Lieutenant General Mak Chito, the deputy director-general at the General Commissariat of National Police, who is in charge of drug-related matters, said that according to police research, most of the drugs confiscated were imported from Laos and other countries in the region.
He said the drugs used and trafficked in Phnom Penh, as well as in other cities and provinces, were sourced and imported over the border with Laos in Stung Treng province.
He added that since the crackdown on drug use began in January, more than 10,000 people had been arrested, 60 percent of them drug users.
According to a police estimate, there are now more than 20,000 drug users in Cambodia.
“The successful result of the crackdown on drug use and trafficking this year led our police to arrest many big drug ringleaders and they seized large amounts of drugs in Phnom Penh as well as in other cities and provinces across the county,” he told Khmer Times.
“On the another hand, we have closed and eliminated the main drug-using areas in the cities and provinces – especially the popular drug using area Phum Trapaing Chhouk [otherwise known as Trapaing Chhouk village] in Phnom Penh,” he added.
But Lt Gen Chito said that due to the large amount of drug users and traffickers who had been arrested so far in Phnom Penh, the government now lacked the room in prisons or rehabilitation centres to house them all.
He added that because of the lack of cells or centres to put them in, some drug prisoners were transferred from Phnom Penh to be temporarily detained in Correctional Centre 4 in Pursat province or at other provincial prisons which have more room.
Other drug users were released after short stays at rehab centres after guarantees by their families or parents that they would not use drugs at their homes.
He said that at present there were only 10 state drug rehabilitation centres and three private ones in country.
The government is now building a big rehabilitation centre worth nearly $6 million in Preah Sihanouk province’s Keo Phos district for drug users.
“Right now, the police cannot eliminate or stop drug use or trafficking apart from cracking down, preventing and reducing it in the country,” he said.
“To resolve drug use and trafficking, the Ministry of Interior has already issued a strategic plan and we are now implementing this strategic plan in five phases.”
Since the crackdown started, people from all walks of life, and of all ages, have been arrested.
Thi Sokheng, 13, a student in grade five at Chumpou Voan Primary School in Tuol Kork district, was selling drugs in the area. He was charged with drug trafficking and is now temporarily detained at Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre 1.
He was arrested by police at a drug smoking area in Toul Kork district’s Boeung Kak II commune on March 16 at about 11.30pm.
Sokheng was arrested by police while he was standing near the railroad waiting to sell drugs to users. After his arrest, police seized a total of 25 small packages of crystal methamphetamine from him.
Sokheng said he was not a drug user or trafficker, but worked only for pay. He told police he was hired by an unidentified person for a fee of 50,000 riel, or about $12.50, per day to sell drugs for her in Boeung Kak II commune.
“The reason I decided to sell drugs was because I needed to make money to pay for my sick 75-year-old grandmother,” he said.
“I was orphaned and I did not have any choices better than this work,” he added.
He said his parents died from diseases when he was about 10. He has three brothers and two sisters he was helping to support.
After his parents passed away, he and his brothers and sisters stayed with their grandmother at a rented house near the railway tracks in Boeung Kak II commune.
Sokheng was not the only young person caught up in the crackdown.
Say Chap, who is also known as Chan (the sparrow in Khmer), is eight years old, has never been to school and lived in a rented room with his poor family near the railway tracks in Boeung Kak II commune.
He was charged by the court prosecutor with drug trafficking, but has been allowed to stay outside detention, while having been put under the court’s control.
He was arrested by police on July 11 while he was selling drugs, very openly, to drug users at a drug smoking area near his rented room. After his arrest, police seized a total of 35 small packages of crystal methamphetamine from him.
Chap also said he was hired by a male drug trafficker to sell drugs for him for a fee of 50,000 riel, or about $12.50, per day. Before his latest arrest, he had been caught by police for drug trafficking twice, but was released because he was a minor.
Iv Rithy, the deputy chief of the Anti-Drugs Unit in Phnom Penh, said that since the Ministry of Interior launched its crackdown and closed the most popular drug using area – Phum Trapaing Chhouk in Sen Sok district in January 2017 – many small drug areas had been established by users in the poor areas of the city.
He said those new drug using areas were in Tuol Kork district’s Boeung Kak II commune near the railroad, in Russey Keo district’s Chraing Chamres II commune on floating houses, and in Meanchey, Por Senchey and Chbar Ampov districts.
“To purchase drugs, the drug ringleaders or traffickers have now changed their strategy,” said Mr Rithy.
“They hire poor children or students to sell drugs for them because they know they are underage or minors. They hire the children for fee of 20,000 riel [about $5] to 60,000 riel [about $15] per day to sell drugs for them,” he said.
He added that at least 10 children aged from eight to 16, most of them from poor families living near the areas where drugs are used, are arrested by local police for selling drugs every week.
According to reports from the anti-drugs department, within the first nine months of this year police arrested more than 13,690 drug-related offenders and confiscated 153 kilograms of meth and other types of drugs.