A growing number of elderly political activists held in Cambodia’s notorious Prey Sar Prison are testing positive for COVID-19 as the coronavirus spreads unchecked through the penal system, inmates and their family members said Thursday.
Reports of the widening prison outbreak came as authorities announced Cambodia’s 300th COVID-19 death and 36,666th infection, marking a grim milestone for a country that just over three months ago had yet to report a single victim of the disease caused by the coronavirus, and whose key textile sector has been decimated by the pandemic.
Sok Polyma, the wife of an activist with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who is locked up in Prey Sar, told RFA’s Khmer Service that she recently received a call from people inside the prison who asked her to relay a request for urgent help because “an increasing number of inmates have COVID-19.”
“I was shocked when I heard—I am afraid and I don’t know how to get my husband out of jail so that he is safe from the virus,” she said. “Please don’t wait until he is sick to send him home.”
Prum Chantha, another wife of a jailed CNRP activist, told RFA she had received similar information in recent days and is worried for her husband, who she said suffers from underlying health conditions.
“It is easier for him to become infected and if he gets sick, he will be at risk of dying,” she said.
“The government has detained him, even though he is innocent. If he and other political prisoners die, [Prime Minister] Hun Sen will go down in history for having murdered them.”
An inmate at Prey Sar, who contacted RFA via social media on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal, said “many elderly prisoners who are political activists have become sick” and called on the government to immediately release them.
No exact numbers
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government. The crackdown on the political opposition, as well as on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 election.
In recent months, authorities have jailed dozens of CNRP activists on charges of “incitement” after they expressed views critical of Hun Sen’s leadership.
While the coronavirus made few inroads into Cambodia in 2020, the number of infections has skyrocketed since its latest outbreak in February led to its first recorded death in early March.
General Department of Prisons spokesman Nuth Savana told RFA that Cambodia’s prison outbreak is “manageable” and “under control,” adding that “none of the prisoners have become seriously sick from the virus.”
While RFA had previously reported that several hundred prisoners had become infected across the country, Nuth Savana refused to confirm the number of cases in the penal system.
“It is very difficult to evaluate,” he said, adding that in some cases symptoms thought to indicate COVID-19 would later disappear, or testing would show that prisoners were suffering from other illnesses.
“The numbers aren’t exact. I can’t give an answer because some people only got flu.”
‘An issue of life and death’
Ny Sokha of Cambodian rights group Adhoc called the situation “alarming” and said that authorities need to resolve it “as soon as possible.” He noted that Cambodia does not have a nationwide set of safety standards for its prisons, which he said are at high risk of virus transmission due to heavy overcrowding.
“Without proper distancing, the virus will spread,” he said. “This is an issue of life and death, it’s not just the flu.”
Ny Sokha reiterated earlier calls that the courts release prisoners who have nearly completed their terms or who are serving lighter sentences, and that the government work to reduce overcrowding in prisons.
To date, eight prisons—including two in the capital Phnom Penh—have reported being impacted by the outbreak.
Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior issued a set of guidelines to authorities on Wednesday on how to avoid transmission of the coronavirus amid the latest outbreak that called on prisons with COVID-19 cases to coordinate with the Department of Health and “strengthen the implementation of relevant health measures.” It said every case of infection must be immediately reported to the ministry.
Mu Sochua, deputy president of the CNRP, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of charges and convictions she says are politically motivated, echoed calls by the wives of jailed party activists for authorities to release them during the outbreak for safety reasons.
“This is very unjust,” she said. “They shouldn’t be mixing politics and justice.”
“They are [officials] with the CPP. They serve the party, but they should also serve the country’s citizens. We demand rule of law.”
Responding to calls for inmate releases, General Department of Prisons spokesman Nuth Savana said that the courts decide who should go free and that if such an order is given, prison officials will comply.
Cambodia’s prison population totals around 39,000 and the country’s prisons have an average occupancy above 300 percent of capacity. Some 35 percent of all prisoners are being held in pre-trial detention.
Layoffs during outbreak
Also on Thursday, a group of nearly 75 Cambodian NGOs issued a statement expressing disappointment with what they said are attempts by management of the Nagaworld Casino in Phnom Penh to dissolve trade union leadership and its plans to systematically fire workers, using the coronavirus pandemic as a justification for its actions.
The statement came a day after NagaWorld announced 1,329 layoffs, including union officials, who say the move is part of a strategy to crush worker representation.
In their statement, the NGOs said that the planned layoffs “were intended to exclude the presence of the union in the company,” something that they claimed NagaWorld did to the previous iteration of trade union leadership there in 2009.
“These acts evince an intention to discriminate against the union and to violate the fundamental freedom of association guaranteed by the Constitution, core conventions of the International Labour Organisation and the Labour Law of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
The groups urged the government to monitor the company’s actions and that company management negotiate with union representatives to find an appropriate resolution.
RFA was unable to reach NagaWorld management for comment Thursday.
In neighboring Vietnam, a country of 96.5 million which has recorded 55 deaths from COVID-19 and a total of 9,784 cases, authorities have sped up plans to vaccinate the public and on June 8 began a phase of inoculation for people in the capital Hanoi who have received their first dose, staff at health facilities, those at the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, and workers at two major industrial zones.
As of Tuesday, authorities in Hanoi said they had vaccinated 1.3 million people, of whom 42,115 have received two doses.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Thursday also welcomed a recent announcement by Washington that it will provide 500 million doses of vaccines to nearly 100 countries worldwide, including Vietnam, as part of the COVAX program in 2021 and 2022.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer and Vietnamese Services. Translated by Samean Yun and Anna Vu. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.