This screengrab taken from an undated handout video from Amnesty International released on May 12, 2020, shows prisoners in an overcrowded jail at an unknown location in Cambodia. Image: AFP

Cambodia’s prisons are overspilling with drug convicts after a crackdown on addicts, a rights group said Wednesday, releasing rare footage of dozens of inmates squashed together in a sweltering cell.

The kingdom has taken a hard line on drugs in recent years as traffickers use the country as a transit point for heroin and methamphetamine and domestic addiction surges.

Drug suspects arrested in poor neighbourhoods often have no legal recourse, according to a report by Amnesty International, which has led to a ballooning prison population. 

Since Cambodia started its anti-drug campaign in early 2017, its prison population has skyrocketed by 78% to over 38,000 people. 

Phnom Penh’s largest jail currently holds 9,500 prisoners – more than four times its maximum capacity. 

The poor Southeast Asian’s drug “rehabilitation” centers do not fare any better, according to testimonies gathered by Amnesty that reflect daily abuse, inadequate sanitation and no access to counseling or medical supervision for drug withdrawals.

Cambodia has not only “failed in its primary mission of reducing drug use… it has led to serious and systematic human rights violations,” said the report. 

Footage smuggled out of an unnamed prison and released by Amnesty shows shirtless prisoners occupying every available piece of floor space, some draped over fellow inmates as they try to sleep, others crouching where they can.

In 2019, over 20,000 drug suspects were arrested, according to Cambodian drug authorities.

“It is obvious that prisons are crowded,” Mok Chito, Deputy National Police Chief, told AFP.

“But if we don’t arrest them, drug users and drug traffickers will be all over society.”

He called the Amnesty report “one-sided and dark,” highlighting “only bad points” and adding, ministries were working to reduce a backlog of court cases to relieve the prisons.