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National Assembly Clears COVID-19 Law with Harsh Prison Sentences

Cambodian onlookers watch Prime Minister Hun Sen gets the AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot at Calmette Hospital, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 4, 2021. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer)

The Cambodian National Assembly on Friday unanimously passed a draft bill that empowers the government to impose restrictions to curb the spread of infectious diseases but also contains strict prison sentences of up to 20 years.

The draft legislation, called “Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases,” was approved by a special cabinet meeting last Sunday and passed by 83 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers on Friday.

The draft bill allows the government to impose health measures, like wearing masks, social distancing and quarantine measures, to quell the spread of infectious and contagious diseases, including COVID-19.

Administrative powers in the bill allow the government to restrict travel, prohibit business activities and cordon off areas with COVID-19.

The legislation also places severe prison sentences and fines for violating these measures. Escaping from self-quarantine can be punishable with up to 3 years in prison and anyone caught evading treatment or escaping a medical facility will face up to 10 years in prison.

A person caught “deliberately spreading” COVID-19 can get up to 10 years in prison, but if this act is committed by an “organized group” then the prison sentence can be up to 20 years.

The law will also allow the government to suspend a business’ operations or a firm’s license.

While the legislation’s title puts other contagious diseases under its scope, all the articles are specifically related to COVID-19, and it is unclear how it can be used in other situations.

The draft legislation is the second law proposed by the government to control the spread of COVID-19. Last April, it hurriedly drafted and passed a state of emergency law giving it sweeping powers to curtail fundamental freedoms and rights.

That law was also intended for a pandemic and has some overlap with the COVID-19 draft legislation.

Prime Minister Hun Sen defended the draft legislation at a Thursday press conference. He justified the need for this legislation pointing to recent incidents of people flouting quarantine guidelines.

“With the breach of quarantine at the Sokha Hotel by two Chinese women, who conspired with the hotel’s security guard to escape, how can we punish them when we do not have [relevant] laws?” Hun Sen said.

FILE PHOTO - Sokha Hotel is located near the Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2015. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)
FILE PHOTO - Sokha Hotel is located near the Royal Palace, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 2015. (Aun Chhengpor/VOA Khmer)

The government arrested two security guards from Phnom Penh’s Sokha Hotel, who allegedly accepted money to allow two foreign nationals to escape quarantine. The two foreigners were linked to the February 20 community transmission, which has continued to spread to other provinces.

Hun Sen had signed a sub-decree on February 18 allowing the government to impose increased fines for anyone who violates quarantine measures. He said stronger legislation was needed to punish offenders.

“Thus, on one hand, we use educational measures and administrative measures, and on the other hand, we also need to use legal measures to assist the work to manage the spread of this virus,” Hun Sen said on Thursday.

The two Sokha Hotel security guards, who finished their two-week quarantine at Chak Angre Health Center and another quarantine facility in Battambang province, were sent to the National Police headquarters on Friday for further processing, according to Deputy National Police Chief Dy Vichea.

Dy Vichea, who also heads the government’s Sub-Commission on the Investigation and Monitoring of Individuals Suspected of Containing COVID-19, did not say what legal measures could be taken against the security guards and two foreign nationals.

“Police officials are still conducting the questioning. So, the determination of the crime, whether to press any charges, and to process further procedures needs to wait until the judicial police finish the questioning and collecting sufficient evidence,” Dy Vichea said Friday afternoon.

Kim Santepheap, a Justice Ministry secretary of state, said the new bill cannot be used in the Sokha Hotel quarantine breach.

“The law could only be enforced on any activities taking place after its promulgation,” Santepheap said. “Any actions preceding the promulgation could be enforced with the existing legal instruments accordingly.”

FILE PHOTO -Cambodian medical officers arrive for health checks on passengers and crew of the cruise ship Westerdam in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo)
FILE PHOTO -Cambodian medical officers arrive for health checks on passengers and crew of the cruise ship Westerdam in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020. (AP Photo)

The February 18 sub-decree was used Friday morning against a Sihanoukville resident for allegedly breaking self-quarantine requirements, according to the provincial administration’s Facebook page. The man, who had indirect contact with a person infected with COVID-19, was fined 2 million riels, around $500.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch strongly criticized the draft legislation in a statement released Friday, calling it “draconian” and “disproportionate.”

“The bill contains overly broad and vague provisions that the authorities could easily abuse, and fails to provide any independent oversight or procedural safeguards,” read the statement.

Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, urged the government to scrap the legislation.

“Cambodia’s leaders should be seeking cooperation from Cambodians in the fight against COVID-19, not threatening them with years behind bars for violating health measures,” Robertson said.

Cambodia has registered 932 COVID-19 cases as of Friday morning, with 425 cases linked to the February 20 community transmission event. The cluster has spread from Phnom Penh and Kandal to Preah Sihanouk, Svay Rieng, and Koh Kong provinces.