Three years after a regulation took effect that prohibited police from using condoms as evidence of commercial sex, authorities openly admit to continuing the practice, which health experts say undermines the fight against HIV and AIDS.
The rule prevents police from using condoms as evidence of an illegal sexual transaction because it could discourage their use and fuel the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
Keo Thea, chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-trafficking police, who usually investigate sex crimes, admitted that his officers continued to use condoms to prove guilt.
“This is evidence,” he said. “We need to think about what the condoms are used for.”
“For example, this place has been thoroughly investigated and found to be providing massages and sex services…and for the used and unused condoms we just confirmed condoms were placed there to offer sex,” he said. “That’s when they consider it as evidence.”
Yet such law enforcement techniques are explicitly banned by Prakas 66, which is meant to ensure that safe sex is prioritized above investigative expediency, allowing sex workers and their clients to carry and use condoms without worrying that it might make them more vulnerable to arrest or prosecution.
Still, Mr. Thea said condoms were essential evidence when used for illegal activities.
“A knife in our house, it is a tool for cutting fish and vegetables,” he said. “But if a person holds that knife and stabs a person…this knife becomes a weapon. It becomes evidence to confirm the crime.”
The enduring issue was among various topics raised on Wednesday at a meeting of government and NGO representatives as an example of one of the obstacles hindering efforts to combat HIV and AIDS and promote the use of condoms.
Pea Phauly, a program officer for health services NGO Family Health International 360, said police were regularly using condoms as evidence throughout the country.
“It is quite common in Phnom Penh and Battambang, Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey,” Dr. Phauly said, noting a case in Phnom Penh earlier this month and another in Pursat province a couple of months ago.
“There is some level of negative impact because people…fear having condoms in their place, especially in a house or a karaoke place,” he said.
Ieng Mouly, head of the government’s National AIDS Authority, said it had received repeated complaints about police flouting the proclamation, but that officials had always denied it.
“They said that there was a problem with police using condoms as evidence to charge the people, the owners, but when we talk to the police they explained that they may find condoms, but they never use them as evidence,” he said.
Sex workers, along with gay men and intravenous drug users, are among three groups that the government and health organizations have identified as being the most vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, and therefore are priority targets in efforts to prevent the virus from spreading.
The country’s fight against HIV has been heralded as an international success, with the rate of infection among people aged 15 to 49 dropping from a peak of 1.7 percent in 1998 to just 0.6 percent last year, according to the government.
Reaching and protecting the most vulnerable groups has become a priority in the latest strategy, developed largely by health NGOs and implemented by the government’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD.
Ly Penh Sun, the center’s director, said police tactics were not the most pressing concern, complaining that a drop in external funding in the fight against HIV and AIDS was leaving the country without the resources needed to reach its target of eliminating new cases.
“Initially we wanted to eliminate new infections by 2020,” he said. “Now we think that is not really possible because we are challenged with financial reductions from outside, because Cambodia is still very poor.”