Cambodians who break Covid rules could face 20 years in prison under a new law that human rights groups say takes “a step towards a totalitarian dictatorship.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Cambodia was “on the brink of death” as a two-week lockdown was imposed in Phnom Penh on Thursday in an attempt to control the spread of the virus.
The law means those convicted could face fines of up to $ 5,000 (£ 3,627) as well as jail time, and grants the government the power to ban or restrict any gathering indefinitely or demonstration.
“For the Cambodian people, the Covid-19 pandemic was not only a public health and economic tragedy, but also a human rights catastrophe thanks to a government determined to move the country step by step towards totalitarian dictatorship”, said Phil Robertson, MP. director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.
Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the new law, which was introduced last month, lacks transparency, uses “vague and broad terminology” and has no control.
She said: “Poorly defined breaches of the law open the door to subjective interpretation and arbitrary application, and the disproportionate criminal penalties they entail pose a threat to critical and dissenting voices in Cambodia, against whom the cadre. repressive legislation has often been used as a weapon in recent years.
Cambodia has among the fewest coronavirus cases in Asia, but an outbreak that began in late February has seen the number of cases jump to 5,480 in two months and 38 deaths.
Police have barricaded areas in Phnom Penh to prevent people from traveling during the Khmer New Year and checkpoints have been set up between areas under lockdown.
“Please, my people, join your efforts to end this dangerous event,” the Prime Minister said in a speech recorded on public television Wednesday evening.
“We are already on the verge of death,” he said. “If we don’t join our hands, we will be heading towards real death.”
A group of UN special rapporteurs wrote to the prime minister to call for a review of the legislation, expressing “serious concern” over measures that undermine basic human rights, including freedom of movement, of peaceful assembly and the right to work.
At least four people had been arrested since the entry into force of the “law on measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other serious, dangerous and contagious diseases”, and several others had been sent to quarantine, UN experts said.
Robertson said dozens of people have been arrested and remanded in custody for criticizing the government’s Covid response.
In a statement, the Senate said the law was aimed at protecting public health and mitigating the socio-economic impact of the pandemic.
“The law demonstrates the government’s willingness to take greater responsibility for protecting people’s lives, safety and order as the country is threatened by Covid-19 and other contagious diseases “, did he declare.
While noting the challenges for any government facing a pandemic, Rhona Smith, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for Cambodia, told the Guardian: “[The law] is needlessly punitive and difficult because most people will not be able to pay the fines. “
She added: “It is common knowledge that prisons in Cambodia are massively overcrowded. The government is aware, but if they start putting people in jail for Covid violations, it further adds to overcrowding and concerns about the potential for Covid-19 to spread through prisons. “
Smith and his colleagues at the United Nations fear that fears over the use of their personal data will deter people from getting tested or vaccinated. As of April 3, the Phnom Penh city administration has released the private details of 976 people who tested positive for the virus, including their name, age, place of work and address.
Authorities in other provinces also publish personal information. “Public disclosure of personal data, including the names of those who have contracted the virus, is a deplorable violation of the right to privacy and can lead to discrimination and stigma,” the experts said.
Human rights groups fear that the law and other measures taken since the start of the pandemic indicate that human rights are crumbling in Cambodia.
“This law is in line with Hun Sen’s continued approach to using the Covid-19 crisis to increase his authority and control over Cambodia, and to see in the law books some fairly broad powers that he can practically employ.” at will, ”said Robertson.