Rights groups wary over emergency law giving Cambodia PM vast powers


Cambodia’s national assembly has passed a state of emergency law on Friday, granting Prime Minister Hun Sen, vast new powers to reinforce the campaign against the coronavirus pandemic.

Human rights groups say an emergency would give sweeping powers to the autocratic leader, who Western countries have long condemned for crackdowns on opponents, civil rights activists, and the media.

The law allows the government under an emergency to monitor communications, control the press and social media, prohibit or restrict distribution of information that could generate public fear or unrest, or that could damage national security.

“The purpose of making this law for Cambodia is not unique, as there is this law already in many other democratic countries,” said Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin.

“The law is intended to protect public order, security, people’s interests, lives, health, property and the environment.”

While human rights experts agreed some restrictions were needed to slow the spread of coronavirus, it is feared that many leaders are using the emergency to grab power.

In Cambodia, the new legislation contains sweeping provisions allowing the government to carry out unlimited surveillance of telecommunications and to control the press and social media. The government would also gain the ability to restrict freedom of movement and assembly, seize private property and enforce quarantines.

In addition, a catch-all clause would authorise “other measures that are deemed appropriate and necessary in response to the state of emergency”.

Hun Sen initially downplayed the threat of coronavirus and at one point threatened to throw journalists out of press conferences if they wore masks.

When the Westerdam cruise ship was turned away by several other countries concerned about the outbreak, Hun Sen not only allowed the ship to dock but attracted international attention by hugging passengers as they disembarked.

The country, where a lack of media freedom means scrutiny is limited, has since recorded 115 cases of the virus. Schools and entertainment venues have been shut, and wider travel restrictions announced.

The state of emergency could be invoked whenever the country is considered to be facing a great risk, such as in a pandemic, war or disruption to public order, according to the law.

Anyone found guilty of disobeying emergency measures, which are vaguely worded and could be used to target government critics, faces 10 years in prison.

David Griffiths, director of the office of the secretary-general at Amnesty International, described the legislation as indefensible.

“This is a blatant exploitation of public panic around COVID-19 and threatens to eviscerate the human rights protections which are guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and international human rights law,” he said.

Independent journalists, government critics and people speaking about COVID-19 online are being arrested on a daily basis, he added. (Source: The Guardian)