Front side of the National Assembly of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, May 7, 2019. © Daniel Kalker/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should withdraw a draconian draft law that would allow for 20-year prison sentences and other disproportionate penalties for violations of Covid-19 related measures, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill contains overly broad and vague provisions that the authorities could easily abuse, and fails to provide any independent oversight or procedural safeguards.

The draft Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases aims to impose criminal punishments, including fines and prison sentences, on people who violate health, administrative, or other measures related to preventing the spread of Covid-19. The government has asked the National Assembly to treat the bill as “urgent,” minimizing expert review and public input.

“The Cambodian government has already passed an abusive state of emergency law and now proposes a vague and overly broad Covid-19 law that would further erode the rights of activists and dissidents,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Imposing ridiculously harsh penalties for Covid-19 infractions goes against both public health and human rights principles.”

Making exposure and transmission of Covid-19 a criminal offense may also have serious public health consequences, as the increased stigma caused by criminalization could deter testing, Human Rights Watch said.

The draft law, a copy of which Human Rights Watch obtained, includes administrative measures such as travel prohibitions, bans on gatherings, lockdown of areas with high Covid-19 case counts, and unspecified “administrative and other measures that are necessary to respond and prevent the spread of Covid-19.” Such vague provisions allow for potential overreach and abuses by the authorities by arbitrarily targeting people and groups in society, such as those protesting government policies or oppressive measures.

The bill sets out the penalties that can be imposed on people found to have violated any health, administrative, or other measures imposed by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Punishments range from suspending or removing business licenses and closing businesses to fines and imprisonment. For example, leaving self-quarantine prematurely is punishable by up to 3 years in prison; leaving medical treatment facilities while positive for the coronavirus is punishable by up 10 years; intentional spreading of Covid-19 is punishable by up to 10 years, or 20 if the offense is committed by an organized group; noncompliance with Covid-19 administrative measures is punishable by up to 5 years when it results in a serious public health threat; and obstruction of Covid-19 measures is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Steep fines accompany all penalties.

The legislation does not make the measures temporary or subject them to regular review.

In April 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen used the Covid-19 pandemic to enact a state of emergency law that severely restricts fundamental liberties. The law grants extensive powers to the prime minister, allowing bans on the distribution of information, intrusive surveillance of telecommunications “by all means,” and total control of the media. It also empowers the government to restrict movement and demonstrations and opens the way for unfettered government powers. The penalties and fines are unlawfully disproportionate.

On February 18, 2021, Hun Sen signed a sub-decree that imposes hefty fines on people who violate Covid-19 quarantine rules. Anyone who “intentionally initiates, leads, advises, incites, persuades or helps” an escape from quarantine facilities may be fined US$12,500. Since the end of 2020, everyone entering Cambodia must undergo a 14-day quarantine period at a government designated location.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party, allows countries to adopt exceptional and temporary restrictions on certain rights that would not otherwise be permitted but the measures must be those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” Such measures restricting human rights should be provided for by law, not discriminate, and be necessary and proportionate to meet the public health crisis.

“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. “United Nations agencies, foreign governments, and donors assisting Cambodia with its Covid-19 response should publicly call for heavy-handed and disproportionate measures to be withdrawn.”