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Two CNRP-linked Individuals Detained for COVID-19 Vaccine Comments

A man receives a vaccine as Cambodia starts its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine rollout with 600,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine donated by China in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 10, 2021. (REUTERS/Cindy Liu)
A man receives a vaccine as Cambodia starts its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine rollout with 600,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine donated by China in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 10, 2021. (REUTERS/Cindy Liu)

Two people linked to the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party were arrested and sent to pre-trial detention for allegedly criticizing Cambodia’s use of the Chinese-made Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine.

Police arrested Thon Chantha, a former CNRP activist from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district, and Mey Sophorn, a party supporter, last week on the alleged charge of incitement, said San Sokseiha, a spokesperson for the Phnom Penh Municipal Police.

“For this case, we sent them to the court [on Sunday]. And according to the information received, it seems that [they] were sent to prison already,” he said.

The Cambodian government has already arrested more than two dozen CNRP supporters for comments they have made online, and occasionally in private communications, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Y Rin, a Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson, confirmed that an investigating judge sent Thon Chantha to pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1, and Mey Sophorn to Correctional Center 2 on an incitement charge.

The Cambodian government started vaccinating priority groups on February 10 using the Sinopharm vaccine, which is produced in China. The government attempted to alleviate concerns over the efficacy of the vaccine, which got off to a shaky start when Prime Minister Hun Sen decided to not get the vaccine because he was above the suggested age bracket for this specific medication.

The Healthy Ministry released a long list of ailments and medical conditions that would exclude someone from getting the vaccine. However, a stream of senior government officials, including two of the prime minister’s sons, have got the vaccine on public displays to show support for Sinopharm.

Mey Sophorn posted on her Facebook on February 9 that given that Cambodia did not have a large number of COVID-19 cases, there was no need to rush vaccinations.

“Why is the one-party government rushing to call on the Cambodian people to be injected by Chinese vaccines, which have not yet been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO)?,” she wrote on Facebook.

On February 18, Thon Chantha posted on his Facebook account that Cambodians were being forced to take the vaccine, even though they did not want to be inoculated.

Am Sam Ath, the deputy director for monitoring at rights group Licadho, said the government was arresting former CNRP members who were turning to Facebook for their news or to express their opinions because of the lack of independent media in the country.

“And if the accusations refer to the charge of incitement, we have to check on the meaning of these Facebook posts and see whether they are incitement or expression of an opinion,” he said.

San Sokseiha, a spokesperson at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, said these were not opinions because they were not “constructive.”

“But this is incitement. It is a form of false information that incites people to misunderstand the problem,” he said.

Last week, a Chinese journalist working in Cambodia was detained and deported for publishing a story about Chinese nationals allegedly receiving text messages promising them a shot of the Sinopharm vaccine for a fee. The journalist has been barred from reentering the country.

The Cambodian government issued a directive last week stating they would deport and ban the reentry of any foreign nationals for spreading “fake news” about the COVID-19 vaccines.