A man rides a motorcart loaded with secondhand shoes for sale along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on March 24 2020. Picture: AFP/TANG CHHIN SOTHY
A man rides a motorcart loaded with secondhand shoes for sale along a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on March 24 2020. Picture: AFP/TANG CHHIN SOTHY

Phnom Penh — The Cambodian government has used the coronavirus outbreak to lock up opposition activists and others voicing concern about the government’s response to the virus, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.

Seventeen 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 (CNRP), according to HRW.

They were charged with penal code violations including incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information, the group said.

The arrests 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, HRW 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 Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.

“It’s truly frightening that during a national crisis, the Cambodian government seems more interested in silencing online critics than undertaking a huge Covid-19 public information campaign.” 

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

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan acknowledged some arrests but dismissed HRW’s allegations, saying such measures had been taken elsewhere to fight false postings about the coronavirus.

The postings that led to the arrests, Phay said, are “disturbing and dangerous to people, and have made people believe panic that affects national security”.

A crackdown on critics of long-time 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.

Reuters