Cambodia passes strict virus prevention bill

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Cambodia has introduced a strict coronavirus prevention law

Cambodians face up to 20 years in jail for flouting coronavirus rules after the country's parliament on Friday passed a strict Covid-19 prevention bill that rights groups have blasted as a tool to curb dissent.

The law specifies a prison term of three years for breaking quarantine orders and up to 20 years in jail for any organised group intentionally spreading the virus.

Health minister Mam Bunheng called it "a strong legal base for the government... to protect lives and public health" after the bill won unanimous support in the legislature.

But US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the law could be used to suppress dissent in a country that has seen successive crackdowns on opposition voices under strongman Premier Hun Sen.

The law will "further erode the rights of activists and dissidents", HRW's deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said in a statement.

He called on the Cambodian government to scrap the bill.

"Imposing ridiculously harsh penalties for Covid-19 infractions goes against both public health and human rights principles," he said.

The legislation could have negative public health consequences if it deters people from coming forward to get tested, Robertson added.

Hun Sen is one of the world's longest-serving leaders, having held power for 36 years using methods that critics say include jailing political opponents and activists.

Since the last election in 2018 -- which his ruling party won handily after the government disbanded the main opposition party -- authorities have stepped up arrests of human rights defenders and other dissenting voices.

This week exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 25 years in jail over an alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen.

His sentencing drew condemnation from UN rights experts on Friday who issued a statement saying they were "appalled" by the "lengthy and disproportionate prison terms which lack clear legal grounds".

Cambodia has largely escaped the brunt of the coronavirus, registering just 932 cases and no deaths.

The caseload was just half that number two weeks ago until authorities discovered a community cluster among Chinese expatriates.

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