PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's government is using the novel coronavirus outbreak to lock up political opponents and detain people who question its handling of the pandemic, a rights group warned Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch said at least 17 people have been arrested since late January for comments about COVID-19 that Prime Minister Hun Sen's administration deemed to be "fake news." They include four members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the main political opposition group that was dissolved in 2018.
Twelve people have been released after signing public apologies and pledging to not spread "fake news." Five, including the four opposition figures, remain in custody. They face charges including incitement, conspiracy, and spreading false information.
A government spokesman did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment on the report.
The country has so far confirmed 87 coronavirus cases -- 35 Cambodians and 52 foreign nationals -- but no deaths. The government has clamped down on people questioning the official figures, including a 14-year-old girl who was forced by police to publicly apologize after suggesting to friends the virus had already claimed lives in the community.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the government should stop "misusing" the virus to lock up opponents and stifle criticism of its response to the pandemic. Instead, authorities should provide accurate and timely information, he said.
"This inherent defensiveness that is causing the Cambodian government to lash out at people discussing the coronavirus response in Cambodia displays not only a repressive orientation by the government, but it also displays a government that recognizes it has a serious crisis on its hands and doesn't know what to do with it," Robertson told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Cambodian authorities say they are monitoring Facebook to track "misinformation." Interior Minister Sar Kheng this week said people using "false rhetoric" would be held accountable, including those who "sensationalize" and "stir chaos."
The arrests have raised long held concerns about alleged government snooping. At least one individual detained -- a CNRP member in the eastern province of Prey Veng -- was arrested after discussing rumors of the pandemic's spread in the country on the phone. Other opposition members arrested had posted about the coronavirus on their Facebook pages.
Hun Sen initially downplayed the severity of the outbreak. He berated journalists for wearing masks at a news conference and personally greeted passengers from a cruise ship that docked in Cambodia after being refused by other countries amid fears of contagion.
This month, he changed course and imposed a 30-day ban on arrivals from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, the U.S., and Iran. However, the government went ahead with military exercises involving hundreds of Chinese soldiers.
A loyal ally of Beijing, Hun Sen also visited Chinese President Xi Jinping in February. This week, China returned the favor, sending several Chinese medical experts and thousands of pieces of medical gear such as protective masks to the country.
"The Chinese side is sure to make its utmost effort to provide comprehensive assistance to Cambodia," China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said on Monday. "This is not only a reflection of the special China-Cambodia friendship, but also what we should do as a community with a shared future and ironclad friends."
With cases surging in recent days, Cambodia is bracing for a further uptick after border closures with neighbors Vietnam and Thailand saw thousands of Cambodian migrant workers return home.
On Monday, Hun Sen ordered provincial governors to rent hotels or guesthouses to prepare to quantaratine new cases. And on Tuesday, the interior minister warned the government was prepared to lockdown villages to contain the virus.