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(Phnom Penh) The Cambodian government must order an end to the campaign of threats and intimidation by local officials in the run-up to national elections on July 27, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on Cambodian authorities to swiftly suspend officials who are responsible for such threats and election law violations.

In a new briefing paper, Human Rights Watch found that village and commune chiefs, most of whom are members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP), are threatening opposition party supporters with violence, expulsion from their villages, and denial of access to community resources. Threats range from being rejected for village rice distributions to having land confiscated for voting for the opposition. Intimidation is directed at political party members, local activists, and voters.

"While the ruling Cambodian People's Party has used violence in previous elections, in the current campaign, it appears to have chosen a more subtle strategy to coerce villagers from voting their preference," said James Ross, senior legal advisor at Human Rights Watch. "Such coercion is more difficult, especially for international observers, to detect, document, and quantify."

Human Rights Watch said that there does appear to be a welcome decrease in the levels of overt political violence, but that this did not necessarily translate into overall greater respect for basic civil and political rights. The government's failure to prosecute those responsible for past acts of political violence has created an atmosphere where less violent forms of intimidation are nonetheless effective.

"Cambodians know that it is very risky to support the political opposition, particularly out in the provinces," Ross said. "If crimes are committed, they believe that little will be done to bring the perpetrators to justice, especially if the perpetrators are local officials."

The 21-page briefing paper, based on research conducted in six provinces, includes three in-depth case studies. For example:

  • Violence and Impunity: In Takeo, a widow has endured political persecution from local officials ever since five members of her Funcinpec-affiliated family were murdered in 1997. The perpetrator, a commune militia man, was never arrested. Others in her village, keenly aware of the legacy of impunity, expressed their anxieties about the elections. It is not a time to engage in political debate, they said, but "a time to keep quiet. We have to live with her story every day."
  • Intimidation Tactics: In Kompong Cham, an opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) rally triggered a wave of political intimidation against participants. Local officials recorded the names of those who attended the rally, denied them access to rice distributions, and failed to investigate when a key SRP activist's water well was poisoned. "How can we know we will be safe to vote the way we want to?" the activist wondered.
  • "Gift" Giving: In Siem Reap, "gift" giving campaigns organized by the CPP are considerably more insidious than traditional vote buying. Voters have been assembled on the promise of getting gifts but found instead that they were forced to publicly renounce any other party loyalties and swear their allegiance to the CPP. In at least one case, villagers received what they thought were cash gifts from CPP officials but learned later they were loans to be repaid--if the CPP loses.

Human Rights Watch's recommendations to the Cambodian government in the time remaining before the July 27 polling day include:

  • Make use of the national media to reinforce the message that voters can cast their ballots for whomever they choose, regardless of the receipt of gifts, the statement of an oath, or any other forced affiliation.
  • Immediately arrange for the National Election Committee to hold public meetings at the village level to assure voters that they will be treated equally regardless of the outcome of the vote.
  • Move quickly to begin prosecuting serious violations of the Law on the Election of the National Assembly, especially those committed by candidates and party officials.

Human Rights Watch called on all political parties to refrain from using inflammatory or racist rhetoric and to do their utmost to report accurately on violations.

Human Rights Watch encouraged international donors, particularly those concerned about human rights, and especially those that have financially supported the elections, to insist that the Cambodian government promptly investigate and prosecute all election violations.

"Election observers must be alert to all abuses--subtle forms of intimidation as well as blatant violence," said Ross. "And the international community must be ready to loudly voice their concerns, should the abuses of past elections be repeated, or new ways of depriving Cambodians their right to vote take their place."

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