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Human Rights Watch issues concerns of rights abuses as Hun Sen warns state of emergency could affect civil rights.
PHNOM PENH--Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday announced that he is contemplating requesting the King to declare a state of emergency. His claims he is yet to make a decision, but admits it is a possibility.
Hun Sen went on to say that he will only invoke article 22 of the constitution and to ask the King to declare a state of emergency if current measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) are ineffective.
“I don't want to use that, but I will invoke article 22 if my orders are not effective,” he said and stressed that he would not be closing markets, restaurants, cafes, shops or factories. He said that Khmer New Year Celebrations would go ahead as planned, adding that he was concerned that people would not be able to live if he ordered too many national closures.
This comes as world leaders are urged to place public health above the economy and enforce the World Health Organization’s guidelines of social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.
While Hun Sen has previously claimed that Cambodia’s healthcare systems are prepared for COVID-19, the transformation of provincial schools and hotels suggests the country’s capacity for coping may be stretched if the pandemic worsens. There are currently 93 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cambodia as of March 25.
Hun Sen also noted that a state of emergency would have an impact on civil liberties, claiming “If we place the country in a state of emergency, civil rights will be affected.” He did not however detail how this would happen.
On March 24, Human Right Watch issued a statement accusing Hun Sen of capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic and using the global crisis as an opportunity to target activists.
“The Cambodian 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, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop abusing people’s free speech rights and instead focus on providing the public with accurate and timely information about COVID-19.”
The statement notes that 17 people have been arrested since January, including a 14-year-old girl and four members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – all were arrested for spreading what Hun Sen has declared “fake news.”
Human Rights Watch contends that the 17 people arrested, among whom are five women, came from seven provinces; Siem Reap, Pursat, Koh Kong, Phnom Penh, Takeo, Kampot, and Prey Veng. Those charged face penal code violations including incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information.
The authorities also arrested and questioned a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears on social media about rumors of positive COVID-19 cases at her school and in her province. Twelve were released from detention after signing pledges to not spread “fake news” in the future and to apologize. The four former CNRP members remain in pretrial detention, with Human Rights Watch expressing grave concerns for the fates of political activisits and free speech champions during this global crisis.
A spokesman for the National Police declined to comment on the fate of the four remaining CNRP members currently being held in pre-trial detention for a range of charges.
Human Rights Watch’s statement stressed that Cambodia’s history of repression and harassment against activists and opposition party members has been amplified and justified by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself. A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, notice of service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all,” the statement read.
Hun Sen has previously called those accused of spreading fake news about COVID-19 “terrorists” and Interior Minister Sar Kheng has warned that people attempting “to stir chaos” would be punished severely. The Ministry of Health has stressed that Cambodians should only trust official information provided to them by the government, but throughout this crisis the ministry’s spokespeople have failed to respond to queries from Thmey Thmey and other media outlets.
“It’s truly frightening that during a national crisis, the Cambodian government seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a massive COVID-19 public information campaign,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors promoting human rights should press the Cambodian government to adopt a rights-respecting approach in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, starting with upholding freedom of expression.”