(New York) - The Cambodian government should take immediate steps to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of political violence committed during commune-level elections held in February 2002, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Action to end impunity should be a pre-condition for any aid to prepare for next year's national elections, Human Rights Watch said.

The report includes a detailed case study of two politically motivated killings that took place in Kompong Cham province in November 2001, which were followed by a sustained campaign of intimidation against opposition members. The cases, which show the clear impact of political violence on voters and candidates, are scheduled to go to trial in Kompong Cham on May 2.

"The trial is a key test case for Cambodian justice," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "The government must show that political violence will be punished. Otherwise, how can there be free and fair parliamentary elections next year?"

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to institute mechanisms to promptly respond to reports of political violence in advance of national elections scheduled for July 2003, in order to deter the kind of violence and intimidation that characterized the commune elections in many parts of the country.

When Cambodia's donors meet in Phnom Penh on June 19-21 for their annual meeting convened by the World Bank, they should insist that the government:

Takes concrete steps to end impunity for perpetrators of political violence;

Ensures the safety of candidates and voters;

Reforms the National Election Committee to prevent control by any political party and strengthens its procedures for investigating and penalizing electoral offences;

Takes steps to ensure that the voting cannot be manipulated; and

Establishes independent new mechanisms to ensure full and unfettered access to broadcast media to all political parties during election campaigns.

The run-up to the February 3 polls saw at least 275 reports of intimidation, threats and harassment, almost exclusively directed against candidates and supporters of parties running against the incumbent Cambodian People's Party (CPP), including twenty-four death threats. Fifteen opposition party members and commune council candidates were killed between January 2001 and January 2002, with the violence clearly increasing as the election drew near.

"While polling day itself was relatively peaceful, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the pre-election period," said Jendrzejczyk. "Political violence, intimidation, voter coercion and vote-buying started even before voter registration, and continued right through to the eve of the election."

Trials held in February 2002 in two of the political killings resulted in jail sentences for the accused, but in neither case was a political motive accepted for the crime. In addition, trial observers criticized the fact that a key suspect was not apprehended in one of the cases, and the lack of evidence against perpetrators in another.

The mechanisms put in place by the government to deal with election violations and political violence proved wholly inadequate, Human Rights Watch said. The National Election Committee and the Central Security Office for the Defense of the Elections did not once exercise their considerable powers to punish perpetrators of electoral abuses, despite hundreds of reports flooding in to Cambodian rights organizations.

The Double Political Killing in Kompong Cham
On November 14, 2001, Sam Rainsy Party member Phoung Sophat was shot dead outside his home in Sralop commune, Tbong Khmum district of Kompong Cham. Two hours later, Funcinpec election candidate Thon Phally was shot dead in the same commune. For months afterwards, opposition candidates and their families in Tbong Khmum were terrorized by nighttime visits from gangs of armed men.

The indicted suspect in both killings, Ien Saveth, is deputy chief of a neighboring commune and the son of the Sralop commune chief. On May 2, 2002, he faces trial along with the deputy police chief of Sralop commune, who is also the former chief of the commune militia. Police and military have failed to apprehend two further suspects - a former militiaman and a sergeant in the district military - who are set to be tried in absentia.

"Without progress in this and other outstanding cases, the prospects for free elections in 2003 and beyond look bleak," said Jendrzejczyk.