Cambodia using virus crisis to arrest activists, says US rights group

PHNOM PENH • The Cambodian government has used the coronavirus outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others expressing concern about the virus and the government's response, a rights group said yesterday.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said 17 people have been arrested since late January for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia, including four members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

They were charged with penal code violations, including incitement, conspiracy and the spreading of false information, the group said. It added that those arrested included a 14-year-old girl who expressed fears on social media about rumours of coronavirus cases at her school and in her province.

Twelve were released from detention after signing pledges not to spread "fake news" and to apologise, the group said.

"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 Mr Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, referring to the disease associated with the virus. "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," he added.

Cambodia reported three new coronavirus cases on Monday, taking its total to 87, the health ministry said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan acknowledged some arrests, but dismissed Human Rights Watch's allegations, saying such measures had been taken elsewhere to fight false postings about the coronavirus.

The postings that led to the arrests, Mr Phay Siphan added, were "disturbing and dangerous to people, and have made people believe panic that affects national security".

A crackdown on critics of longtime ruler Hun Sen has led to the banning of the main opposition party, a treason trial for opposition leader Kem Sokha and the arrest of dozens of activists over the past year.

  • 17 Number of people arrested since late January for sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia, including four members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2020, with the headline Cambodia using virus crisis to arrest activists, says US rights group. Subscribe