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Cambodia tightens repression under virus cover: Rights groups

The Cambodian government is using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to ramp up a crackdown on human rights defenders and environmental activists, two leading watchdogs charged on Thursday.

Rights activists, labor leaders and journalists have all faced increased violence, intimidation, detention and judicial harassment in the southeast Asian nation since a crackdown was launched ahead of the July 2018 general election, a new report said.

“Since March 2020, the novel coronavirus pandemic provided the government with a set of additional arguments and tools to further crack down on dissent in Cambodia,” said the report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT).

A new law drawn up in the context of COVID-19 and promulgated on April 29 allows the government to declare a state of emergency whenever Cambodia faces “danger” and “a great risk” such as a pandemic.

The law’s terms are “ill-defined” and give the government sweeping powers to restrict movement, rights to freedom of expression and association as soon as the state deems a situation “dangerous”, the report said.

Silence all criticism

Cambodia’s law on the State of Emergency “risks violating the right to privacy, silencing free speech and criminalizing peaceful assembly,” the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia said on April 17.

Rights group Human Rights Watch last month also accused authorities of using the pandemic as a pretext to arrest opposition supporters and critics who had questioned the government’s handling of the coronavirus.

“The accusations of fake news linked to the pandemic have increased in recent months. More than 40 people have been arrested since the beginning of the pandemic for posts related to posts on Covid-19,” said Hugo Gabbero, who coordinated the FIDH and OMCT report.

“The accusation of fake news silences all criticism, particularly through arrests which create ripple effect of fear through the rest of civil society,” Gabbero told.

He asked the international community to apply pressure to the Cambodian government to ensure the law isn’t applied.

Bleak place

“The tools at the Cambodian authorities disposition seem to us sufficient to deal with the pandemic. We’re worried about this law being instrumentalized to silence civil society even more,” Gabbero added.

Cambodia has reported just 141 coronavirus cases and no deaths, although skeptics say the low numbers are due to a lack of testing and contact tracing within the country.

Since the July 2018 general election, rights groups say human rights defenders have operated in a repressive environment that is unprecedented in Cambodia’s recent history.

“Cambodia has become a bleak place for civil society — from labor leaders to land rights and cyber activists,” said OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock in a statement.

“The government of Cambodia must stop harassing human rights defenders and adopt urgent measures to protect them and ensure they can continue to carry out their vital work,” he added.

Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen is one the world’s longest-serving leaders, maintaining a 35-year grip on power with methods that critics say include jailing political opponents and activists.

Strongman regimes from around the world — including in Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia and China where the virus originated — have been accused by activists of using COVID-19 as a way to tighten their grip on societies.

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