On Reticence on Prison Covid-19 Cases, Spokesperson Says Issue Is Privacy

4 min read
Vehicles to transport defendants from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to prison on February 4, 2021. (Ouch Sony/VOD)

A spokesperson for the Justice Ministry and Cambodian Human Rights Committee hit back at criticism over lack of transparency about Covid-19 cases in the country’s prisons by turning the issue into a matter of privacy.

The Preah Sihanouk provincial administration three weeks ago disclosed just over 30 cases in its prison before going silent, referring questions to the Interior Ministry prisons department.

Two weeks ago, 18 cases at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison were revealed in a letter from the prison to court officials, but neither City Hall nor the prisons department have provided details or updates.

On Tuesday last week, the prisons department evaded questions about cases at PJ prison, another Phnom Penh detention center. On Wednesday, it acknowledged there were cases but would not disclose how many. A spokesperson could not be reached to answer questions on Friday.

On Monday and Tuesday last week, City Hall did not respond to questions. On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh governor declined to answer how many cases there were.

In Kandal province, a deputy governor said on Tuesday he did not know the number of cases in the provincial prison, and on Wednesday the Kandal governor said he didn’t want to talk about the prison.

The Health Ministry would not answer questions all week until Friday, when a spokesperson would only say the prisons’ cases were counted in the national total — though they do not appear to have been listed in cases posted by the administrations of Preah Sihanouk and Phnom Penh.

Kandal is not publishing daily case counts. Phnom Penh has also stopped publishing daily totals since Friday.

When asked why the city stopped releasing its daily case counts, Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng said authorities have been busy.

“Today, we are very busy in collecting samples,” he said. “That’s why we need time to take samples, get people to be treated on time. Our team is busy in that works, so [they] can’t reveal the names.”

Up until Friday, Phnom Penh administration listed Covid-19 patients’ names, ages and locations in posts on its website and Facebook page. Sreng said disclosing names is now “less important for our research.”

On Monday, Chin Malin — spokesperson for the Justice Ministry and Human Rights Committee — responded to criticism about a lack of transparency about the scale of the prisons outbreaks by saying “we do not understand what they really want,” and turning the conversation to the disclosure of patients’ identities.

“Like in Kandal provincial prison, just a few hundred people were announced this morning. That’s OK. But what they are asking for, like Human Rights Watch, is not just the figures. They are asking for details such as the identities of the detainees, which we do not think is necessary. But later on if the authorities think it’s necessary, they could reveal it,” Malin said.

Government-aligned Fresh News on Monday reported 369 cases at the Kandal prison, citing “an officer at the Kandal provincial health department.”

Malin added that authorities had previously published the names of Covid-19 patients found among the general public — a practice criticized for privacy violations — because those people could move around and spread the disease, while inmates were stationary.

The U.N. office in Cambodia said the U.N. was not asking for the identification of Covid-19 patients.

The U.N. said on Friday that the “United Nations system in Cambodia” did not have specific information on prisons’ cases and called for greater transparency. The World Health Organization is part of the U.N. system.

“The call made by the United Nations should not be construed as a call to disclose the personal information of individuals who may have been tested positive. Respect for human rights including the right to privacy is paramount in the pandemic response,” the office said in an email on Monday.

Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, said Malin was intentionally missing the point.

“This is more of Chin Malin’s malicious and deceptive public relations spin to try to confuse the media and the public,” Robertson said, adding that concealing numbers made national and international organizations doubt Cambodia’s health measures.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at local human rights group Licadho, said numbers of Covid-19 cases at specific locations were important information for national and international organizations as well as affected families.

Clarification: This article has clarified the source of U.N. Cambodia’s response.

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