Prominent unionist Rong Chhun and youth activist Sar Kanika were denied bail at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday. The decision comes amid an unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak in Cambodia’s prisons, with justice ministry officials discussing potentially releasing juvenile inmates nearing the end of their sentences back into their communities.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun was arrested last year for a Facebook post and comments he made on Radio Free Asia claiming that farmers in Tbong Khmum province had lost land during the demarcation of the Cambodia-Vietnam border. He was charged with incitement to cause social disorder in August. Kanika, who is a member of youth group Khmer Thavrak and a former activist for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested and also charged with incitement while calling for the union leader’s release.
The Cambodian government has been highly sensitive to discussions of the border demarcation process. Many Cambodians, including members of the dissolved CNRP, allege that Cambodia has ceded territory to Vietnam as border posts have been placed along the border.
Chhun and Kanika were not present at the bail hearing after prison officials at Prey Sar Prison requested the court to suspend prisoner transportation amid a COVID-19 outbreak in the correctional centre, according to statements made by the deputy prosecutor and judge during the hearing.
In the hearing room, deputy prosecutor Seng Hieng said there was no clear basis for the defendants to be bailed.
“This crime affects social security, so [the court] does not allow them bail,” Hieng said. “The prosecutor rejects the bail appeal of the defendants’ lawyers.”
The deputy prosecutor denied that the defendants would be at risk of infection in prison, claiming that prison officials had already vaccinated all inmates in Prey Sar Prison’s Correctional Centers 1 and 2 already.
During the hearing, Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Le Sokha said that the hearing had been delayed until now due to the February 20 COVID-19 outbreak.
“The defendants could continue to be detained until the court issues the trial decision,” Sokha said. “[As lawywers], we cannot use the excuse of [the length of the] pre-trial detention.”
Lawyers of both the defendants said they had applied for bail because their clients had been detained for more than 11 months already — nearly half the length of the maximum sentence for incitement, which carries a prison term of between six months and two years. The defense lawyers also said they hadn’t received any information from their clients for almost four months, leading them to fear for their clients’ health amid the nation’s first widespread COVID-19 prison outbreak.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said that he believed the court’s decision was unreasonable.
“My clients’ are charged with a misdemeanor, so the maximum sentence is only two years, but my clients have been detained for more than 11 months already,” he said. “If the decision is based on the situation of COVID-19, how do we know when it will be finished?”
Rong Vichea, a nephew of the imprisoned unionist who was present at the hearing, said that he felt the decision was related to political issues.
“I am very regretful for this decision … he did not cause chaos to the national security,” he said. Vichea added that he had not heard any updates about his uncle since the February 20 outbreak, making him fear for Chhun’s health.
General Department of Prisons (GDP) spokesman Nuth Savna said that he just received information that the health ministry will provide 6,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to vaccinate inmates in targeted areas including Kandal, Kampong Speu, Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
Savna said that until now, COVID-19 infections had broken out in prisons in Preah Sihanouk, Kandal, Kampong Speu provinces as well as Prey Sar Prison’s CC1 and PJ prison in Phnom Penh. He declined to say how many inmates had tested positive for COVID-19.
“The Ministry of Justice could consider releasing inmates who are minors on bail within set conditions,” he said. Savna added that the ministry had recently asked the GDP how many inmates were minors who had nearly finished their sentence, with an eye to potentially allowing them to integrate back into their communities.
Savna told CamboJA that all prisons in Phnom Penh and the provinces have been working directly with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and provincial courts to create a register of prisoners who had nearly finished their jail terms.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health reported 678 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total count to 35,511 since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20 — when the ongoing community outbreak began. The ministry has also recorded 28,649 recovered cases and 278 deaths from the virus.