Families in Dark as Covid-19 Spreads in Siem Reap Prison

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Twenty-six female inmates tested positive for Covid-19 at Siem Reap prison, after 19 others caught the disease at the same prison last week. (Charles Gouvet)

Twenty-six female inmates at the Siem Reap Provincial Prison have further tested positive for Covid-19, as family members of jailed rapper Kea Sokun as well as opposition activist Mao Sarin said they hadn’t seen their jailed relatives in months and were concerned for their health.

The Siem Reap provincial administration said this week that 26 female inmates — 23 Cambodians, one Thai, one Indonesian and one Venezuelan — tested positive, following last week’s announcement that 19 officials and inmates at the prison were infected.

Sarun Leng, the daughter of Mao Sarin, a former CNRP activist who has been detained since April 11, said on Friday that she hadn’t seen her father in three months and was anxious over his health and safety. She added that she still wasn’t sure what her father was charged with.

“I am very worried because since he was arrested I have never even heard his voice,” Leng said.

Kea Channa, the older sister of Kea Sokun, a rapper who was sentenced by the Siem Reap Provincial Court to 18 months in prison for incitement in relation to his nationalist lyrics calling on Cambodians to “stand up,” also expressed her concerns for the safety of her brother in jail. She had also not had any contact with Sokun since the February outbreak of Covid-19, Channa said.

“There are a lot of infections in there, and I am outside and have not seen or talked to my brother. I don’t know how he really is,” Channa said.

Nuth Savna, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s prisons department, said the families’ concerns were “normal” because they did not have information. But authorities would take care of the inmates, Savna said.

“Their well-being is under our control, so if they say they are unwell, we will take them to an outside hospital immediately,” he said.

Chan Chamroeun, rights group Adhoc’s coordinator for Siem Reap province, said outbreaks in prisons were of particular concern due to overcrowding.

“We are always worried when there is an infection, not only in prisons, even outside,” Chamroeun said. “But in prison, it’s a place where there is a lot of concentration. If there is an infection, we are concerned.”

In line with repeated calls from civil society groups, Chamroeun said bail or early release for some prisoners would be a good way to reduce crowding during the pandemic.

Covid-19 cases have been announced in at least nine of the country’s 28 prisons, though prison officials have been reluctant to disclose cases, citing potential risks of rioting and other security concerns. They have previously said that 10 to 20 percent of inmates in affected prisons tested positive, likely indicating that thousands of prisoners have had the disease. Prisoners have been prioritized for vaccinations in recent months.

Nationwide, Cambodia reported 889 new Covid-19 cases on Friday for a total of 6,455 for the week, down 3.6 percent from last week. The country also announced 27 deaths for 197 total for the week, up slightly from 195 last week.

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