Interior Minister Sar Kheng has warned police officers to refrain from the use of violence to enforce COVID-19 lockdown measures in Phnom Penh after photos emerged on social media of officials beating people.
Sar Kheng issued the warning in a letter on April 21, shortly after photos and videos on Facebook showed police officers and other security personnel using wooden sticks or rattan canes to beat people who were leaving homes or were allegedly not complying with stringent lockdown measures, which are in place until April 28.
In the letter, Sar Kheng praised police and other security forces for their efforts to implement a citywide lockdown to prevent the recent rapid spread of COVID-19 but urged law enforcement officials to exercise “high tolerance” by avoiding violence.
“All relevant authorities and law enforcement forces, please continue to pay attention to perform [your] duties with patience, adhere to discipline, dignified behavior and strictly adhere to the principles of professional ethics of the forces, especially to avoid the use of violence to solve problems when implementing all government regulations or measures,” Sar Kheng’s letter reads.
According to a four-minute video clip shared on Facebook on Wednesday, some police officers were seen using the rattan canes to chase away dozens of people walking on a street in Meanchey district’s Stung Meanchey commune.
Several other video clips were also shared on Facebook, showing police officers riding motorbikes and beating individuals who were distributing drinks at peoples’ homes, and also threatening the use of the rattan canes against people standing in restricted areas.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sok Seiha said the canes were being used as a warning.
“We didn’t bring [rattan canes] to badly treat innocent people. We just took them to scare and threaten as the first step for those who do not listen [to government directives], especially in the red and vulnerable zones,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior human rights monitor at local rights group ADHOC, said the municipal police spokesperson's spin on the use of rattan canes was “unacceptable.”
“If we look at the footage and the videos, it was not used as a way of scaring the people. We watched those videos, and we saw the use of sticks to beat up [the people],” he said.
He added that the use of excessive violence by security forces could provoke a violent backlash from people. He said a similar situation had occurred in India where Indian security forces used similar batons to keep people from leaving their homes.
Since the government imposed a lockdown in Phnom Penh and Takhmau on April 15, police have arrested several people in violation of the COVID-19 health measures, including people assembling for drinking alcohol, traveling between provinces, and cutting police tape in protected areas.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police’s San Sok Seiha said on Wednesday that more than 100 people had been fined for leaving their homes.
ADHOC's Soeng Senkaruna said the government should stop arresting people or sending them to courts as it could increase the risk of COVID-19 infections to other prison detainees.
The human rights defender said law enforcement officers should try to explain to people or educate them about the benefits of following the COVID-19 restriction rather than using violence or arresting them.