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(New York) - Politically motivated criminal charges against at least three opposition party officials are part of a ruling party campaign to weaken political rivals prior to national elections in July 2008, Human Rights Watch said today.

The authorities last week arrested Tuot Saron, an official of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), and sought the arrest of at least two other SRP officials. Human Rights Watch fears that additional SRP officials may also be arrested imminently.

“Dubious arrests of opposition officials months ahead of an election should set alarm bells ringing,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This divide-and-conquer strategy is a well-known tactic of Prime Minister Hun Sen to subdue his opponents.”

On March 17, Hun Sen, who is also vice-chairman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), gave a speech blasting the SRP for being a “dictatorial party” and for allegedly intimidating former SRP members who had defected to the CPP. He claimed that SRP officials in Kompong Thom province had forcibly detained a party activist to try to prevent her from defecting to the CPP.

During the speech, Hun Sen declared that an investigation into the matter would be led by Sok Pheng, a former SRP parliamentarian for Kampong Thom who defected to the CPP last month and was rewarded with an appointment as a government adviser.

On March 18, police arrested Tuot Saron, a SRP commune chief in Kampong Thom province, and announced that they were also planning to arrest two of his party colleagues. After being detained for a day and a half by police, Tuot Saron was transferred to court, where he was charged with being an accomplice to the illegal confinement of the party activist, and sent to pre-trial detention at Kompong Thom prison.

“The CPP orchestrated the criminal charges against Tuot Saron, and the Cambodian police and courts are doing what they do best – taking their cue from the top,” said Adams. “There’s no pretense of an independent justice system when the prime minister publicly accuses the opposition party of committing crimes, and appoints his own person – a government advisor with no law enforcement jurisdiction – to ‘investigate.’”

Human Rights Watch believes the criminal charges are part of a concerted government campaign to coerce SRP members to defect to the CPP and punish those who refuse to do so, with the intention to split and weaken the opposition party before the national elections.

In recent months, Hun Sen has publicly offered paid government advisory positions to any senior SRP officials who defect to the CPP, and he has denounced critics who point out that he is advancing his own political interests by misusing government money to pay for such inducements. His party has also tried to intimidate and coerce SRP members to switch allegiances.

The CPP has a history of using its control of the government to engineer internal splits within other political parties, including the fracturing and eventual demise of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party in the 1990s and, more recently, a major split within the CPP’s government coalition partner, FUNCINPEC. The SRP has faced similar pressure in the past by the CPP to split.

Politically motivated criminal charges have also long been a weapon of choice of the CPP against its political foes. This includes the one-year imprisonment of SRP parliamentarian Cheam Channy, convicted in a show trial in 2005 on unsubstantiated charges of creating a rebel army, and the conviction of party leader Sam Rainsy the same year for allegedly defaming government leaders.

“For those who follow Cambodian politics, this is déjà vu,” said Adams. “Diplomats and donors should speak out now and not wait to learn the hard way how rights are violated by the government in each election cycle.”

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