Cambodia’s government should take “urgent measures” to reduce the risk that the country’s “severely overcrowded” jails will suffer coronavirus outbreaks, a human rights group said over the weekend, calling on authorities to release prisoners at greater risk, as well as those detained for minor offenses.
The number of patients confirmed to have COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus—held steady at 114 on Monday with no reported deaths for the third straight day in Cambodia, but New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned in a statement a day earlier that overcrowding in the country’s prisons risks “serious health consequences” for prisoners, prison staff, and the broader public.
It urged authorities to “immediately release people who should not be in custody,” including pretrial detainees held for minor offenses, and political prisoners. The group also recommended alternatives to detention for prisoners with underlying health conditions, older prisoners, and women who are pregnant or held with small children.
“Cambodia’s seriously overcrowded prisons are COVID-19 disaster zones waiting to happen,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at HRW.
“Cambodia should speedily release prisoners at greater risk if infected, as well as those detained for minor offenses, and take urgent steps to ensure prisoners get adequate medical care.”
According to HRW, as of January, 18 of Cambodia’s 28 civilian prisoners held nearly 24,000 detainees, including more than 1,600 women—43 of whom are pregnant. More than 100 children are incarcerated with their mothers, though the prisons also hold more than 540 other children.
Cambodia on March 25 suspended visiting rights for anyone except people who obtain medical certificates and undergo temperature checks upon entering prisons, and instructed prison chiefs to quarantine all new detainees for two weeks but has provided little detail about the measures.
HRW said prisoners have limited access to soap and water, as well as hand sanitizer, and are held in cramped conditions with others.
“To reduce the risk of transmission in prisons, the government should routinely monitor all patients for symptoms, immediately test those who become ill, isolate those who test positive, and quarantine prisoners who were in close contact with those found to have COVID-19,” the group said.
HRW also cited international guidance which says that prisoners should be able to maintain a distance of six feet from one another, including in housing and at meals, and that guards should be routinely screened to ensure they aren’t sick.
“The Cambodian government needs to immediately reduce the prison population while undertaking rigorous testing inside prisons to isolate those who are sick,” Robertson said.
“Foreign donors should urge the Cambodian government to abide by international guidance and human rights standards, which would be in the best interest not only of prisoners and prison staff, but also the Cambodian people.”
Responding to HRW’s statement on Monday, Secretary of State and Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA’s Khmer Service that authorities had already implemented preventive measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in prison cells, and said releasing inmates is “unfeasible.”
“HRW’s demands are hilarious, as no country is in a position to release its detainees,” he said.
“Also, in Cambodia, there are no ‘prisoners of conscience,’ only politicians who were detained for having committed felony offenses.”
Attempts to reach General Department of Prisons spokesperson Nuth Savana and his deputy, Sorn Keo, went unanswered on Monday.
According to official statistics, as of March 2020, Cambodia had nearly 39,000 inmates nationwide, among whom more than 20,000 inmates are serving jail terms for drugs-related offenses. Inmates with court rulings or final judgments number around 10,000, while the rest are held under pre-trial detention.
HRW’s statement came as Cambodia’s government rolled out a series of new measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus over the weekend, including the establishment of working groups to control supplies and prices of essential goods, study financial and banking policies to lessen the impact of the outbreak, prepare a budget to combat the crisis, and implement social security mechanisms.
The measures came after the World Bank and Asian Development Bank issued forecasts which anticipate that Cambodia’s economic growth would drop from around 7 percent in 2019 to 2.5 percent and 2.3 percent, respectively, in 2020. Experts suggested that measures taken by Cambodia’s government to combat the coronavirus have so far failed to reassure the country’s citizens.
Speaking to RFA over the weekend, Ministry of Economy and Finance spokesperson Meas Sok Sensan said that the COVID-19 budget for the Ministry of Health had been expanded from U.S. $60 million to U.S. $100 million.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has also vowed to allocate between U.S. $800 million to U.S. $2 billion to fighting the virus if it last for between six months and one year, while campaigning for donations from the private sector and civil servants to fund the country’s National Committee for Combating COVID-19.
Over the weekend, Cambodia also joined several other Southeast Asian nations in putting trade restrictions in place for certain rice exports, citing a need to ensure domestic food security during the outbreak. Hun Sen hinted that fish may soon be included on the list of restricted exports.
The prime minister also said that he will issue new measures requiring the reservation of an additional 10 million face masks and 5,000 protective gowns for health workers, and the production of 1 million liters of hand sanitizer.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Health on Sunday also issued guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus in buses and taxis with more than 10 occupants, urging drivers to “open windows” so that air can pass through the vehicle and use sanitizer to clean vehicle seats, while calling on passengers to wear face masks or scarves.
State of emergency
Meanwhile, former Pursat province member of parliament for the CNRP Ngim Nheng on Monday issued a statement saying Hun Sen’s government should be held accountable for creating an economic crisis by failing to allocate funds from the national budget to offset hardships endured by Cambodians during the outbreak.
He called draft legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia—which has faced criticism from rights groups who say it contains vague clauses that would provide Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat”—a bid by the prime minister to “escape” his responsibility for leading the country into financial ruin.
“As the leader of our country, [Hun Sen] must be accountable for the nation’s fate and hardship of its citizens,” he said.
“There are several problems he can solve, but he has chosen not to do so. He merely wields his power for himself alone … He has never acted on behalf of the nation’s interests. I think he is trying to escape from his responsibilities.”
Attempts to contact government spokesperson Phay Siphan for a reaction to Ngim Nheng’s comments went unanswered Monday.
The draft law approved by Hun Sen’s cabinet last week will be reviewed on Tuesday by the National Assembly’s permanent committee before submission to lawmakers for debate and adoption.
Chairman of the board of directors for the Grassroots Democracy Party Yang Saing Komar told RFA that based on Ministry of Health’s tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases, Cambodia is not yet at a stage that would require the declaration of a state of emergency.
Instead, he called on the government to adopt a law allocating a portion of the national budget to lessen the economic burden for people impacted by COVID-19.
“The law that we should adopt for now is related to how to assist our people in regard to preventing economic hardships, a food security crisis, and other things,” he said.
“These are the areas of the law that we want the government to focus on, especially relating to the national budget. There should be a special budget, like a stimulus package, to carry out these measures.”
Last week, HRW Asia director Brad Adams noted that Hun Sen has claimed the draft “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency,” is necessary to respond to a pandemic that only weeks ago he had dismissed concerns over, and suggested the prime minister is using the crisis as an excuse to give himself even greater control of Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.