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Overcrowded and squalid prisons and detention centers risk becoming detonators for a major COVID-19 outbreak in Cambodia that will make the pandemic much harder to control, said Amnesty International today, amid a mounting crackdown on people detained for “causing scares” by talking about the outbreak on social media.

“Instead of addressing the overcrowding crisis in detention centers, Cambodian authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to further harass and detain government critics,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director. “Meanwhile, Cambodian prisons and drug detention centers are dangerously overcrowded and lack even the most basic health services. They are a ticking time bomb for the country and potentially its neighbors.”

At least seven people have been charged and sent to pre-trial detention amid a crackdown on allegedly “false” information related to COVID-19, six of whom are activists or members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).  In total, at least 22 people have been arrested in relation to sharing information about COVID-19 since January, with the majority released without charge after signing pledges to refrain from spreading false information online.

On Wednesday, March 25, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that he was considering invoking Article 22 of the Constitution in order to declare a state of emergency and warned that human rights could be further restricted as a result.

On March 5, Ouk Kimseng, spokesperson for the Information Ministry reportedly stated that “ill-intentioned people are spreading fear among people, causing scares among citizens. Prime Minister Hun Sen considers them as terrorists, these people are problematic to our society… We are working with Facebook and tracking individuals or groups to take action against them.”

“The Cambodian government appear more focused on using this pandemic to silence its critics rather than protecting its people and their right to adequate health care. The Cambodian authorities must cease their harassment of critics and address the urgent health needs of all people in Cambodia,” said Nicholas Bequelin.

Overcrowded detention centers a “ticking time bomb”

According to government data, Cambodia’s prisons held 37,000 people at the end of 2019 despite having an estimated capacity of just 26,593. As of January 2020, Cambodia’s largest prison – Prey Sar, in Phnom Penh, the capital – held over 10,000 prisoners, making it approximately 500% over capacity.

Up to 40% of all prisoners are in pre-trial detention and thousands are held for minor, non-violent offenses such as use or possession of drugs. The national prison population has skyrocketed by approximately 70% since December 2016 as a result of the government’s punitive and abusive anti-drugs campaign.

Sreyneang*, a woman who was released from the CC2 women’s and minors’ facility in Prey Sar in November 2019, told Amnesty International: “The sleeping space for me and my one-year old son was only about 30- or 40-centimetres width across, it was so tight. If I slept on my side, my son could sleep on the floor. If I slept on my back, he had to sleep on top of me.”

“The inhumane conditions in Cambodian jails and other detention centers make it impossible for detainees and staff to take preventive steps, including physical distancing and isolation,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “These conditions were never acceptable, and now they risk lighting a fuse for what could quickly become dramatic and exponential levels of community transmission of COVID-19.”

Thousands more are currently held against their will in so-called drug “rehabilitation” centers and “social affairs” centers spread across Cambodia. Compulsory drug detention, where people suspected of using drugs are sent with the aim of making them stop using drugs, is inherently arbitrary. While the total population in Cambodia’s drug detention centers is not publicized, information received by Amnesty International suggests that overcrowding inside these centers is as severe as in prisons.

Maly*, a sex worker who was detained for five months at Orkas Khnom, a drug detention centre in Phnom Penh, after she was arrested in a street sweep in 2019 told Amnesty International of the severe overcrowding she experienced: “Sixty people were in my small room and it was so tight that we could not even move or lie down flat when we were sleeping. We had to press against each other on our sides.”

“Cambodia’s squalid drug detention centers are rife with human rights violations, and the current COVID-19 crisis will only exacerbate the dangers for people held there. Compulsory drug detention centers must be closed permanently without delay, and those detained must be immediately released with sufficient provisions of health and social services available to them,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “

“These people, often with weak immune systems and pre-existing medical conditions, need urgent protection. The current crisis offers the Cambodian authorities an opportunity to ensure that drug treatment services are truly voluntary and rooted in communities.”

Background

Both in prisons and other detention centers, overcrowding, inadequate nutrition, and poor sanitation mean that thousands of detainees in Cambodia suffer from health problems, putting them at particular risk amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every year, thousands of people suspected of using drugs, homeless people, sex workers, and people with mental illnesses are arrested in drug raids and city beautification sweeps and are detained in “social affairs” and “drug rehabilitation” centers around Cambodia. These detention centers have faced sustained criticism over the years, including allegations of torture, forced labour, sexual violence, and other forms of ill-treatment.

On March 25, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned governments of the “catastrophic” consequences for both detainees and wider communities of failing to address prison overcrowding and poor detention conditions in the context of COVID-19. She called on governments to “release every person detained without sufficient legal basis” and to “release those particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, among them older detainees and those who are sick, as well as low-risk offenders”.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the world, including Ethiopia, Bahrain, and Iran have taken decisive action to ease overcrowding in places of detention by releasing people held on politically-motivated grounds, on minor and non-violent charges, pre-trial detainees, and people with underlying health conditions.

Amnesty International is urging governments to review the need for continued custodial detention in order to safeguard the health of people in detention, prison staff, and the general population. Governments should consider if prisoners qualify for parole, early or conditional release, or other alternative non-custodial measures. They must fully take into account individual circumstances and the risks posed to specific groups of prisoners, such as older people or those with serious medical conditions, including those with a weakened immune system.

Given that the spread of transmissible diseases is a public health concern, especially in the prison environment, it is desirable that, with their consent, all detainees can have access to free COVID-19 screening tests, including those who are scheduled for early release. For those who remain in detention or prison, the authorities must provide a standard of healthcare that meets each person’s individual needs and ensures the maximum possible protection against the spread of COVID-19.

*Pseudonym used in the interests of the interviewee’s security.

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