Wives of Jailed Cambodian Activists Petition US Embassy as Husbands Face Virus Outbreak

They call for leniency as COVID-19 spreads through the country’s prison system.
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Wives of Jailed Cambodian Activists Petition US Embassy as Husbands Face Virus Outbreak Members of the 'Friday Wives' hold a protest demanding the release of their activist husbands jailed on 'incitement' charges in Phnom Penh, May 28, 2021.

The wives of several Cambodian opposition activists jailed on “incitement” charges held a protest Friday demanding their release and petitioned the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh to intervene in their husbands’ cases, as a coronavirus outbreak has surged unabated through Cambodia’s prisons in recent weeks.

The group of women—known as the “Friday Wives” for their weekly rallies on behalf of their husbands from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—said that if the courts won’t drop the charges in their cases, authorities should at least allow them access to their family members during the outbreak so that they can monitor their health.

“There is an outbreak inside the prisons. I petitioned the [U.S] embassy so they are aware of the situation of our suffering because we have not been able to meet with our husbands over the past three months,” Prum Chantha, the wife of jailed CNRP activist Kak Komphear, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

During the protest, authorities in the capital Phnom Penh deployed about 50 guards to monitor the situation, who the wives said verbally abused them.

Nonetheless, Prum Chantha said that a U.S. official met with her and six other wives holding banners and photos of their jailed husbands in front of the embassy on Friday and agreed to accept their petition.

“We don’t know their situations. It is very dangerous; the prison has prevented us from accessing information about our family members. They don’t even allow us to talk over the telephone. They are intentionally abusing our rights,” she said.

The protest comes a day after Chhey Sreyvy, the wife of jailed CNRP activist Tun Nimol, told RFA that she received a phone call from a guard at her husband’s prison, informing her that he had been infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. She demanded that the government take responsibility for his sickness because of lax mitigation measures in detention, as well as for jailing “innocent people,” and demanded that he be released.

Hang Phary, wife of the jailed president of the lesser-known opposition Khmer Win Party, Soung Sophorn, also said Thursday that her husband had been infected with COVID-19 while in detention and urged the court to release him and other political prisoners during the outbreak.

Outbreak spreading through prisons

Kak Komphear and several other CNRP activists have been jailed in recent months on charges of “incitement to create social chaos” after voicing criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership. Rights groups have said that the cases are a violation of their right to the freedom of expression and have also called for their release.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) easily won all 125 parliamentary seats in the country’s 2018 elections after removing the opposition party and spearheading a crackdown on NGOs and the independent media.

In addition to the legal injustice of what they believe are politically motivated cases, the wives say their husbands have been subjected to harsh conditions in detention and now face a life-threatening situation, as Cambodia struggles to contain a rapidly spreading new outbreak.

While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the country’s latest outbreak in February has led to nearly 200 deaths and the number of people infected with COVID-19 has climbed to more than 28,000. The virus is running rampant through the country’s penal system, with at least 350 inmates of some 40,000 nationwide testing positive in three prisons in Phnom Penh, neighboring Kandal province, and the southwestern coastal city of Sihanoukville.

Seng Chanthorn, the wife of another jailed CNRP activist, told RFA that she is extremely concerned about her husband’s risk of infection because the cells in his prison are overcrowded and lacking in hygiene.

“I am calling on the court to maintain its independence [from the government],” she said.

“Please release my husband during the COVID-19 outbreak. I am very concerned, and I am asking the government to please reconsider the situation for those in jail and political prisoners who are innocent.”

Risks remain unaddressed

RFA was unable to reach General Department of Prisons spokesperson Nuth Savana for comment Friday, although he responded to concerns by international rights groups Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International over the risk of infection to inmates on Monday by saying that the government has “no plan” to release non-violent offenders or those eligible for bail in order to reduce overcrowding.

Soeung Senkaruna, spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the concerns of jailed activist family members are legitimate and urged the courts to consider releasing some inmates.

“The General Department of Prisons has promised to fix the issue, but we have not seen them do anything yet,” he said.

Friday’s protest comes days ahead of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman’s expected visit to Phnom Penh as part of an 11-day, multi-city trip that began on May 25 and will include planned stops in Brussels, Ankara, Jakarta, Bangkok, and Honolulu.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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