Prisons Director Acknowledges Covid-19 Outbreak, Defers on Case Count

6 min read
Kandal authorities examine the provincial prison, in a photo posted on Facebook by the Kandal provincial administration.
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A prisons department spokesperson on Wednesday confirmed there were Covid-19 cases in Phnom Penh’s PJ prison but would not say how many, while the mother of a prisoner there said her daughter had heard of widespread transmission.

When asked how many people are infected with Covid-19 at PJ, Interior Ministry prisons department spokesperson Nuth Savna told VOD to call Phnom Penh municipality.

Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng told VOD to call the prisons department.

“It will be clear and this is their work,” Sreng said. “It is under the control [of the city] but … the management is in the hands of the general director of the prisons department.”

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Monday released a statement claiming there were Covid-19 cases “in the hundreds” in prisons in Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk province, though local authorities and the Interior Ministry would not offer clarity when asked about these claims on Tuesday.

Through a short and spotty phone call three days ago, a woman detained in PJ prison told her mother that she was afraid of catching Covid-19 in the prison and claimed that there were more than 300 cases there, the mother said.

“Because the room [where prisoners stay] is crowded together, she is afraid that she could be infected,” the mother said, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against herself or her daughter.

The daughter told her mother that she had spent time during an exercise break with a woman who she later found out tested positive for Covid-19. The daughter added that prison guards had also been infected. The mother said her daughter had spoken a lot to her, but it was hard to hear because of the poor phone connection.

“I told her to take precautions and protections,” the mother said. “I am very concerned about her.”

She urged officials to allow some prisoners, including her daughter, to return home, saying she would ensure that her daughter would show up to court.

“We want to request the Covid-19 working group to go down [to PJ prison] and give clear information about how many cases are there, since there are many cases,” she said. “I do not dare to speak [out] about this since I am afraid of going to jail.”

The mother said she had also heard of cases in Correctional Center I from a woman whose son is detained there.

Cases at PJ have not previously been confirmed, with Savna saying on Tuesday that Phnom Penh City Hall would report cases there “if there is,” before acknowledging the outbreak on Wednesday. However, 18 cases at Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 were last week disclosed in a letter from the prisons department to the capital’s courts requesting a suspension of hearings.

Kandal province’s deputy governor Nouv Peng Chandara confirmed on Tuesday that there were Covid-19 cases at the Kandal provincial prison among guards and prisoners, though he said he did not know how many people were infected. Provincial governor Kong Sophorn on Wednesday said he didn’t want to talk about the prisons, saying authorities had it under control. Savna, the prisons department spokesperson, said “the situation is OK” in Kandal.

Health Ministry spokesperson Hok Kim Cheng did not answer his phone, while Khmer-Soviet hospital director Ngy Meng hung up on a reporter.

When asked about unreported Covid-19 cases in the prisons, Pradeep Wagle, U.N. representative for human rights in Cambodia, would only say that the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights was concerned about outbreaks.

“OHCHR is concerned about the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in several prisons in Cambodia. We acknowledge the efforts made by the authorities and urge that more needs to be done to protect the prisoners who are among the most vulnerable people at risk,” he said in an emailed response.

Wagle said the U.N. human rights office “encourage[d]” proper Covid-19 prevention and response in the prisons. He did not say whether the agency was taking any specific action over the current prison outbreaks, but said that the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court had taken measures to release more than 100 prisoners after Covid-19 cases were reported in the province’s prison.

“We hope that prison authorities can control any outbreak effectively, without putting at risk the rights of detainees to a fair and prompt trial.”

The U.N. resident coordinator’s office echoed the concerns over “the vulnerable prison population,” while also calling for greater transparency from the government.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons is concerning,” it said. “We urge the Government to act quickly to prevent further spread of the virus by ensuring sanitary conditions, widespread access to testing and health care for prisoners as well as greater transparency in their response.”

The U.N. would be handing over its first shipment of personal protective equipment to prisons on Thursday, and stood ready to provide humanitarian support, it said.

“We must acknowledge the primary role of the authorities to respond to the outbreak in the prisons,” it added, also saying that it welcomed the release of 100 prisoners in Preah Sihanouk.

WHO Cambodia did not respond to a request for information.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director, said the government was shying away from “legitimate” questions from journalists and there was a lack of response to a public health emergency.

“It’s a fundamental failure of basic transparency and good governance,” he said. “It really seems the Cambodian government is engaged in an effort to cover up how bad the situation is, or close off the information until it comes up with a narrative.”

The Cambodian prison system had always been opaque, Robertson said, and called an outbreak in overcrowded prisons “sadly predictable.”

“It shows a very primitive and punitive mindset by the Cambodian authorities: Once we’ve put someone in prison, that’s that, and of course we’re absolutely right in what we’re doing,’” Robertson said. “It shows a lack of understanding and a lack of concern of human rights.”

Robertson said U.N. country offices had been “asleep at the switch” during much of the outbreak, saying that both WHO Cambodia and U.N. resident coordinator Pauline Tamesis had failed to hold the Cambodian government accountable for poor public health management and human rights abuses within the country’s Covid-19 response.

“I think they’ve been intimidated by [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and the Cambodian government,” he said. “It’s very sad that these agency heads come into Cambodia and leave any idea of human rights standards at the baggage carousel in Phnom Penh airport.”

Additional reporting by Ouch Sony and Michael Dickison

Updated at 9:30 p.m. with comment from the U.N. resident coordinator’s office.

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