Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

No Covid in prisons: officials respond to UN concerns

Prisoners arrive at Phnom Penh Municipal Court ahead of their trials on June 2020. Panha Chhorpoan
Prisoners arrive at Phnom Penh Municipal Court ahead of their trials on June 2020. Panha Chhorpoan

Cambodia’s overcrowded prisons remain free of COVID-19, an official said on Wednesday, responding to calls from the United Nations to blanket test all inmates at facilities visited in November by an official at the center of Cambodia’s first community outbreak of the contagious disease.

Between 200 and 300 inmates who showed symptoms had been tested and returned negative results, Nuth Savna, spokesman for the General Department of Prisons, said, a day after the United Nations published a letter calling for information regarding efforts to ensure the health of prisoners.

“We do not test all inmates because we do not believe that the prisons are infected with COVID-19,” Savna told CamboJA, adding that the samples of ill inmates in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Koh Kong, Kampong Thom and Kandal provinces had returned negative since November.

“Even if they had a minor flu, we brought their samples for testing, but the prisons department does not broadcast this information,” he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on November 29 the first community transmissions of COVID-19 in Cambodia, with the family of Chem Savuth, director general of the Interior Ministry’s prisons department, at the center of the cluster.

In a letter published Tuesday, the United Nations called for the government to test all inmates at Phnom Penh’s CC1, CC2 and PJ prisons and the Banteay Meanchey and Kampong Thom provincial prisons, which Savuth visited in November, as well as the Siem Reap prison, where a relative who also tested positive is employed.

“As a matter of urgency, we request [the] government to prioritize mandatory COVID-19 testing for all detainees … as a measure to control any potential outbreak,” the U.N.’s special rapporteurs on human rights in Cambodia and on the rights to health said.

“[I]t is reported that no detainee had received a COVID-19 test, while more than 5,000 individuals including prison officials and their family members have accessed such testing.”

With CC1 at 380% capacity, CC2 at 280% capacity, PJ at 170% capacity and Siem Reap at 290% capacity, the risk of the disease spreading was heightened, it said.

“This puts specific groups of people at higher risk, including individuals with underlying health conditions, elderly detainees, women detained with children and pregnant women, juveniles and persons with disabilities.”

Adequate soap, clean water and other infection control measures should be provided free of charge, the letter added.

Savna, the spokesman, said that the prisons department was closely monitoring the health of all prisoners and was waiting for the U.N. to respond to an earlier request to provide “technical experts” to assist in carrying out increased COVID-19 testing.

“With this information, they just show their intention. But they have not responded as to whether they have accessed the testing material and they propose to use it,” he said.

Cambodia’s prisons have more than 38,000 inmates in total, including 8,000 in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Correctional Center 1 for men, with most operating at double capacity at least.

The Justice Ministry has been on a drive to clear a backlog of thousands of cases where the accused are placed in pre-trial detention, often for months or years and many of them for minor crimes.

Ny Sokha, head of monitoring at local human rights group Adhoc, questioned the timing of the letter from Rhona Smith and Tlaleng Mofokeng, the special rapporteurs.

“They are right to be concerned but it is a little bit late,” he said, calling for a reduced burden on the country’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.

“Please, the court should use measures such as bail or putting defendants under court supervision,” he said.

In December, local and international rights groups including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Licadho appealed to the government to conduct extensive testing of prisoners, considered one of the most vulnerable communities to COVID-19, ensure social distancing and make efforts to reduce prison populations.

Cambodia has registered 466 cases of COVID-19 including 73 Cambodian migrant workers who returned from Thailand, and no deaths, according to the Health Ministry’s tally on February 2, with 444 recovered.