Three Phnom Penh men were arrested but released without charges on Wednesday for violating the city’s Covid-19 rules by gathering in one man’s home to drink and sing karaoke.
Kuch Kimlong, deputy prosecutor and court spokesman said that the trio violated Article 3 of the newly passed law on COVID-19, but were permitted to return home after being educated and paying a fine.
“After questioning, deputy prosecutor Muth Dara decided to allow the Health Ministry to fine them and educated them and had them sign a contract [saying they won’t do it again] and then they were allowed to return home,” Kimlong said via message. He declined to say how much they were fined.
It is believed to be the first arrest under the Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases, which passed in early March in spite of criticism from rights groups who warned it could be abused.
Under the rules, health officials or authorities can warn or educate anyone who does not wear masks or follow social distancing guidelines, with fines from 200,000 riel ($50) to 1mllion ($250). An organizer of gatherings that violate these rules can be fined between 1million riel ($250) to 5million riel ($1250).
Phnom Penh, Preah Sihanouk, Kandal, and Prey Veng provinces have special rules in place now including mandatory masks in public places. Phnom Penh also has an 8pm to 5am curfew aimed at curbing infections linked to the “February, 20 event,” which has caused 2915 positive cases of COVID-19 and 22 deaths as of April 7.
Hour Mengvang, Sen Sok district police chief, confirmed that the three men were arrested for violating the Health Ministry’s rules on gathering in groups without proper social distancing.
According to Mengvang’s Facebook post, Aun Ratana, 37, Hou Runmony, 30, and Heng Sovit, 72, were arrested on April 4 at 5:30 pm in Sen Sok district of Kork Klaing commune.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sokseiha said the trio: “violated a measure from the Health Ministry that has banned gathering and drinking,” he said, adding that the police had previously warned Phnom Penh residents not to violate the order.
“This is a message that we want to show the public, especially in Phnom Penh, please do not gather for drinking which breaks a measure of the Health Ministry,” he said.
Phnom Penh’s two-week curfew is likely to have a strong effect on small business owners and others who work at night, particularly street food vendors.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said that civil society groups have already raised concerns regarding the new law on COVID-19, particularly around the lack of public understanding of the law.
“It will show a negative image when there is law enforcement on people who have not understood that law well,” he said.
“In my opinion, they should [only] educate them because preventing the spread of COVID-19 needs people to understand that it very important that they to follow the Health Ministry rules,” Sam Ath said.
According to the letter to the Cambodian government made public this past weekend, UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith cited concerns with provisions in the new law that provide the government with the power to “restrict or prohibit travel, meetings and gatherings,” and “restrict certain business operations or professional activities”. Notably, those penalties can include prison sentences ranging from six months to 20 years.