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Cambodia's Interior Ministry Urges Police to End Violent Enforcement of Coronavirus Lockdown

2021-04-21 -- Cambodia's Ministry of Interior on Wednesday called on the country's authorities to refrain from using violence to enforce coronavirus restrictions, after videos emerged of police using sticks to beat residents of the capital region found in violation of an ongoing lockdown.

Last week, the government implemented a 14-day closure of all non-essential businesses in the capital Phnom Penh and neighboring Takhmao in Kandal province from April 15-28 and required the two cities' combined 2.3 million residents to adhere to a strict curfew or, in certain "red zones," stay in their homes except in the case of an emergency.

Cambodia, which had largely remained unscathed by the coronavirus in 2020, registered its first death from COVID-19—the disease caused by the virus—last month, a year to the day that that the World Health Organization (WHO) labeled it a pandemic.

Since then, 56 people have died, and the country's caseload has reached more than 7,500 people. Authorities recorded 300 new cases on Wednesday alone.

The drastic rise in infections led Prime Minister Hun Sen to issue the lockdown order last week, but residents of affected "red zone" districts within Phnom Penh and Takhmao told RFA's Khmer Service on Tuesday that they had yet to receive any promised food or supplies from the government, despite the threat of being arrested if they leave their homes.

On Wednesday, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng issued a statement thanking his officers for enforcing the government's lockdown to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus and urged them to restrain from using violence against the public to do so.

"I am taking this opportunity to remind all relevant authorities to perform their tasks with patience, maintain discipline with a dignified attitude, adhere to the force's code of ethics, and especially to avoid using any violence to resolve problems when implementing the government's order," he wrote.

In a separate Facebook posting, Sar Keng said he understands the difficulties and challenges that police face while maintaining the lockdown but said that only with restraint will they win public support.

Sar Kheng's comments followed reports of authorities in Phnom Penh using batons and sticks to chase and beat people wandering outside of their homes in recent days—videos of which were distributed by local authorities via posts to their Facebook accounts.

Authorities have also threatened to fine anyone found in breach of the lockdown between 1-20 million riels (U.S. $250-4,950) and punish them with between six months to five years in prison. At least 120 people have been arrested, six detained, and five charged for disobeying the curfew and lockdown since April 15.
'Equal to human rights abuse'

Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the local human rights group Adhoc, on Wednesday condemned the police violence, calling it "equal to human rights abuse." He said police should be educating people about the need for a lockdown, rather than beating them with sticks.

"The law prevents all sorts of violence and officials should look into police actions," he told RFA.

"If the actions don't comply with the lockdown order, the offenders should be punished to make sure the public doesn't think the government instructed them to beat people."

Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sokseiha confirmed to RFA that officers did use violence against those who violated the lockdown, adding that it was only carried out against people in the red zones.

"Our intention is not to harm them, but we need the situation to get better soon," he said.

"If people cooperate with the authorities, they will get their rights back and return to their normal daily lives."

However, Am Sam Ath of Licadho told RFA that it is against the law for police to use violence against residents, regardless of whether they live in the red zones.

He said that current outbreak does not allow such measures and suggested that "such violence will hurt the government's image."

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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