Cambodian official says human rights 'need to be put aside' in drug war

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian official on Wednesday defended an anti-drug campaign that has been decried as rife with abuses, saying human rights “need to be put aside” to fight drugs that destroy families and fuel violent crime.

The comments came in response to rights group Amnesty International, which said in a report that the campaign that has seen 55,000 people arrested had led to torture and caused dangerous prison overcrowding while fuelling corruption.

Amnesty cited interviews with dozens of people who described arbitrary arrests by police and torture in prison and drug treatment centres.

Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, acknowledged that human rights may have been violated but defended the drug war.

“When it is an anti-drug campaign, there is never a respect for human rights,” Khieu Sopheak told Reuters.

“During the anti-drug campaign, human rights need be put aside, so it is clean,” he said.

The spokesman denied, however, Amnesty’s assertion that police made arbitrary arrests and solicited bribes from detainees to keep them out of prison.

Cambodia’s prison population has soared by 78% since 2017, and its largest prison, known as CC1, has 9,500 inmates – nearly five times its estimated capacity, Amnesty said, calling the overcrowding a dangerous breeding ground for disease such as COVID-19.

Nearly 60% of all inmates in Cambodian prisons are held on drug-related charges, the rights group said.

Chin Malin, a spokesman at the Ministry of Justice, told Reuters the government planned to announce measures to address prison overcrowding next week.

As in much of Asia, the use of the stimulant methamphetamine has increased sharply in Cambodia in recent years.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Kay Johnson, Robert Birsel