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Cambodia accused of using Covid-19 for political clampdown

Those arrested, including political opponents, were accused of incitement, conspiracy and spreading rumors

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: March 26, 2020 07:53 AM GMT

Updated: March 26, 2020 08:09 AM GMT

Cambodia accused of using Covid-19 for political clampdown

Chinese medical experts on the coronavirus arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport on March 23 to help Cambodian authorities deal with the pandemic. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced a plan to declare a state of emergency to fight the spread of coronavirus amid allegations of a political clampdown in the name of combating the pandemic.

Hun Sen revealed the plan on March 25 while addressing a task force meant to tackle the pandemic in the country, which had reported 96 cases as of March 26. 

"I am considering using Article 22 of the constitution to request that the king place the country under a state of emergency," Hun Sen said.

"I do not want to do it, but I will if my bans are not effective," he added, referring to restrictions, such as sharing information, already put in place.

The announcement came a day after US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused the government of the predominantly Buddhist nation of detaining activists and opposition leaders in the name of fighting the virus outbreak.

Since late January, 17 people have been arrested for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia, the rights group said on March 24.

Police accused those arrested of violating the penal code and engaging in incitement, conspiracy and spreading rumors, HRW added.

The arrested include four members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The government "is misusing the Covid-19 outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government's response," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.

"It's truly frightening" that the Cambodian government "seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive Covid-19 public information campaign," Radio Free Asia quoted Robertson as saying.

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Teenager detained

A 14-year-old girl, who on social media posted her fears of coronavirus cases at her school and in her province, was among the detained, the rights group said.

Among those arrested was Phut Thona Lorn, also known as Lorn Ly, an opposition party supporter. He was detained in the tourist city of Siem Reap.

Lorn Ly had shared two videos on his Facebook account, asking long-time ruler Hun Sen to take more steps to tide over the epidemic crisis. He has been accused of spreading fake news by the Siem Reap provincial court.

HRW said 12 persons were released after signing pledges not to spread fake news.

Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, confirmed some arrests but dismissed the rights group's allegations, saying such measures were adopted to fight false information about the coronavirus.

The social media postings, Siphan said, were "disturbing and dangerous to people, and created a panic that affects national security."

'Hun Sen took it easy.'

Hun Sen initially downplayed the risk of the coronavirus, and on Jan. 30 he warned reporters and officials who were wearing face masks at a news conference.

On Feb. 14, he went to the port city of Sihanoukville to welcome over 2,000 passengers of the cruise ship MS Westerdam, who were refused entry by several countries on suspicion of coronavirus.

On March 17, Hun Sen was forced to change course and imposed a 30-day ban on arrivals from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, the United States and Iran, where the pandemic has wreaked havoc.

HRW said Hun Sen has so far failed to implement an effective health campaign. "The relatively low number of cases reported raises the question of whether sufficient tests are being conducted or necessary information is being shared with the people," the group said.

Hun Sen recently directed provincial authorities to convert schools into makeshift hospitals, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

He has also sought medical aid from China, which has provided 100,000 pieces of medical protective gear and equipment, according to the country's health department.

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