A rights monitor questioned the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision to last week hold a mass trial of opposition supporters as the court announced that trials for defendants in the capital’s prisons will be postponed through at least December 14 amid Covid-19 fears.
The country is facing school closures and widespread Covid-19 testing after the national prisons director’s wife tested positive on Saturday. Fourteen people, including the director and his wife, have so far been found to have the disease, with more than 3,000 samples collected from suspected contacts.
On Monday, the Phnom Penh court said the city’s Prey Sar and PJ prisons had notified it of some guards going into quarantine for 14 days. Only exceptional hearings as determined by judges would be held, it said.
Administrative work and services will continue to be conducted, while some court officials are also going into quarantine, it said in a statement.
On Thursday, more than 30 out of nearly 140 summoned supporters of the CNRP turned up at the court for a trial into four cases related to alleged incitement and plotting. After taking a roll call, the trial was postponed till next year. The defendants who attended were crammed into the courtroom, with some of them needing to sit in the audience, breaching social distancing protocols.
Ahead of the trial hearing, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin last week downplayed the risk of summoning more than 100 defendants at once, saying the court had Covid-19 measures in place.
Be Tea Leng, the Interior Ministry’s prisons department deputy director-general, said all prison officials had been tested and were so far negative, though he said he did not know the exact number tested.
Only a few officials had been in direct contact with Chhem Savuth, the prison director whose wife on Saturday tested positive for Covid-19, Tea Leng said.
“This is only the first test so [we] cannot clearly determine who is positive and who is negative yet,” he said.
Prison officials were concerned about moving prisoners around and having to pass documents to officials who had gone into quarantine, he said.
“We are worried about sending them back and forth, and some officials in quarantine have positions and a duty to sign and send documents. … We are worried,” Tea Leng said.
Prey Sar and PJ currently houses just over 10,000 detainees, he said. About 10 officials had direct contact with Savuth, and some others were in indirect contact, he said.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, said the trial delays could affect the rights of the accused, but action needed to be taken.
“There is no other option. If we still continue practice as usual, we are afraid that officials who will transfer the accused might have had direct contact with the prisons director and might be infected with Covid-19,” Sam Ath said.
Cambodian prisons were already overcrowded, so the risk from an outbreak was high, he said.
Sam Ath also questioned the court’s decision to hold last week’s mass opposition trial, asking whether it was sound judgment to gather such a big group of people at this time, without properly following Health Ministry guidelines.
“Why did the court summon so many people?” he asked.