A new list has shown that Cambodian authorities are arresting people for expressing their concerns about the global pandemic, COVID-19.

According to Human Rights Watch, 17 people have been arrested between January 28th and March 22nd; five remain in pretrial detention, with four being members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Authorities also arrested and questioned a 14 year-old girl, after she expressed her fears on social media of rumours that there were positive cases of COVID-19 in her school.

Deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson said that the government should focus on informing the public, rather than abusing people’s free speech.

“The Cambodian government is exploiting the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to arrest activists and anyone speaking out against the government’s poor response to the pandemic.”

Authorities are allowing Cambodians to return to the country from abroad, but had not banned international travel until this month. | Photo: @noansereiboth, Twitter.

“It’s scary that during a national crisis, the government seems more interested in silencing people speaking out against their policies than spreading awareness and flattening the curve of the coronavirus.”

Of the 17 arrested, 12 have been released from detention with official warnings after apologising and signing pledges to stop spreading “fake news” in future.

As of March 25th, the country had 91 confirmed cases and no deaths.

Despite Prime Minister Hun Sen imposing a 30-day ban on arrivals from many European countries, the United States and Iran earlier this month, the 67 year-old’s initial denial of the virus’ risk and failure to implement a public health campaign has led to activists voicing their concerns.

Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director, John Sifton said: “Hun Sen has been in charge for almost 40 years and what we are seeing is part of a larger cycle of human rights violations.”

He continued: “The COVID crisis means foreign governments and donors promoting rights should press Cambodia to adopt an overdue rights-respecting approach – starting with freedom of expression.”

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