Overcrowded and squalid prisons and detention centers risk becoming detonators for a major COVID-19 outbreak in Cambodia that will make the pandemic much harder to control, said Amnesty International on Friday, amid a mounting crackdown on people detained for “causing scares” by talking about the outbreak on social media.
“Instead of addressing the overcrowding crisis in detention centers, Cambodian authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further harass and detain government critics,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director. “Meanwhile, Cambodian prisons and drug detention centers are dangerously overcrowded and lack even the most basic health services. They are a ticking time bomb for the country and potentially its neighbors.”
At least seven people have been charged and sent to pre-trial detention amid a crackdown on allegedly “false” information related to COVID-19, six of whom are activists or members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In total, at least 22 people have been arrested in relation to sharing information about COVID-19 since January, with the majority released without charge after signing pledges to refrain from spreading false information online.
On Wednesday, March 25, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that he was considering invoking Article 22 of the Constitution in order to declare a state of emergency and warned that human rights could be further restricted as a result.
On March 5, Ouk Kimseng, spokesperson for the Information Ministry reportedly stated that “ill-intentioned people are spreading fear among people, causing scares among citizens. Prime Minister Hun Sen considers them as terrorists, these people are problematic to our society… We are working with Facebook and tracking individuals or groups to take action against them.”
“The Cambodian government appear more focused on using this pandemic to silence its critics rather than protecting its people and their right to adequate health care. The Cambodian authorities must cease their harassment of critics and address the urgent health needs of all people in Cambodia,” said Nicholas Bequelin.
Overcrowded detention centers a “ticking time bomb”
According to government data, Cambodia’s prisons held 37,000 people at the end of 2019 despite having an estimated capacity of just 26,593. As of January 2020, Cambodia’s largest prison – Prey Sar, in Phnom Penh, the capital – held over 10,000 prisoners, making it approximately 500% over capacity.
Up to 40% of all prisoners are in pre-trial detention and thousands are held for minor, non-violent offenses such as use or possession of drugs. The national prison population has skyrocketed by approximately 70% since December 2016 as a result of the government’s punitive and abusive anti-drugs campaign.