Under the pretext of fighting “fake news”, Cambodian authorities are using the COVID-19 pandemic to carry out arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters and government critics.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that so far, authorities have arrested at least 30 people, including 12 linked to the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“Prime Minister Hun Sen is busy tightening his grip on power and throwing political opposition figures and critics in jail while the world is distracted by COVID-19,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director.
Robertson said that peaceful political activity and criticizing the government are not crimes and that Cambodian authorities should drop the bogus charges and release those detained.
Human Rights Watch documented 30 arbitrary arrests between late January and April 2020 with fourteen people remain in pretrial detention, apparently on baseless charges, including incitement, conspiracy, incitement of military personnel to disobedience, and spreading false information or “fake news.”
Among those arrested in addition to the opposition activists was a journalist quoting a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, and ordinary Cambodians who criticized the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of April 28, Cambodia reported 122 positive COVID-19 cases, with no new cases reported for 16 days. The absence of recent cases raises concerns that either the government is not testing for the coronavirus or that medical workers fear reprisal for reporting results.
Also under the pretext of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government is pushing through a state of emergency law that allows the government to further repress the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
Provisions of the new state of emergency law that raise particular human rights concerns include possible indefinite renewals of the state of emergency, the wide scope of unfettered martial powers granted to the executive without independent oversight,and unqualified restrictions on civil rights that allow for arbitrary surveillance of private communications and silencing of independent media outlets.
On April 27, the Constitutional Council unanimously approved the draft law, leaving only the promulgation by the king or the president of the senate, on the king’s behalf, as the last step to pass this law.
The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said that Cambodia’s state of emergency law “risks violating the right to privacy, silencing free speech, and criminalizing peaceful assembly.” She added that a “state of emergency should be guided by human rights principles and should not, in any circumstances, be an excuse to quash dissent or disproportionately and negatively impact any other group.”
International human rights law recognizes that in the context of serious public health threats and public emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified.
But they must have a legal basis, and be strictly necessary, based on scientific evidence and neither arbitrary nor discriminatory in application, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, and proportionate to achieve the objective.
“The state of emergency law will be a disaster for the human rights of the Cambodian people, who face having their civil and political rights stripped away,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments and donors should demand the Cambodian government prioritize public health at a time of crisis rather than further repressing basic rights.” (Source: HRW)