(New York) - As Cambodians head to the polls on July 27, 2008, conditions are not in place for free and fair elections, Human Rights Watch said today. The near-monopoly on broadcast media for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP), bias within the electoral apparatus, and harassment, intimidation, and coerced defections of opposition party members undermines the credibility of the national elections.

“Elections in Cambodia under existing conditions devalue the process and put a free and fair vote further out of reach of the Cambodian people,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Election observers from genuine democracies would never accept at home the CPP’s grip on the media or the fear and intimidation faced by voters and opposition parties.”

In violation of Cambodia’s election campaign rules, the 11 political parties competing in the election for the national parliament have not had equal access to radio and television, by far the most important source of information for most Cambodians. Information broadcast on television and radio is almost exclusively favorable publicity for the incumbent CPP. Positive coverage of Prime Minister Hun Sen and other party leaders dominates. When the stations cover the opposition, much of the coverage is negative. On July 10, the National Election Commission (NEC) issued a warning to 13 television and radio stations for broadcasting biased coverage of the elections. Ten of those stations are dominated by pro-CPP coverage, according to the NEC.

“The lack of fair access to the broadcast media alone is enough to delegitimize the election,” said Adams. “If voters can’t get accurate information and their choices are determined by fear, an election loses much of its meaning.”

The July 11 murder of opposition journalist Khim Sambo inserted violence into the campaign. Sambo had been a reporter for more than 10 years for Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), a newspaper affiliated with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and one of the few newspapers in Cambodia that is not dominated by the government or the CPP. He was known for his hard-hitting articles about government corruption, political affairs, and land grabbing. No one has been arrested for the killing.

“Sambo’s killing appears to have been timed just before the election to have the maximum chilling effect on journalists, opposition party supporters, and human rights monitors,” said Adams.

In June, military police arrested Moneaksekar Khmer editor Dam Sith, who is also running as a SRP candidate in the election, after the paper reported allegations about Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s role during the Khmer Rouge regime. Sith was released after several days in detention, but criminal charges related to the article are still pending.

The buildup to the July elections has also been marked by calculated efforts by the CPP to pressure opposition party members, particularly the SRP, to defect to the CPP. Lucrative offers of high-paying government positions and threats of reprisals, including arrest or violence against those who refuse, have led hundreds of opposition party members to join the CPP.

“There’s been a welcome decrease in violence compared to past elections,” said Adams. “Cambodian politicians and party activists know the CPP will use violence if necessary – which means the ruling party doesn’t need to do so.”

Human Rights Watch said the Cambodian election is taking place against a backdrop of massive violence in previous elections, with no one ever held to account for political killings. In the 1993 UN-administered election, more than 100 opposition party members were killed in a campaign orchestrated by the CPP. In the 1998 election, pre-election violence again dominated, amid well-publicized pictures of brutal murders of opposition activists. This followed Hun Sen’s July 1997 coup, in which more than 100 opposition party members, particularly members of the royalist FUNCINPEC party, were systematically murdered.

The lead-up to the most recent National Assembly election in 2003 began on a grim note with the murders in February 2003 of Om Radsady, senior advisor to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Buddhist monk Sam Bun Thoeun, an opponent of the ban on monks voting imposed by the CPP. A judge and a court clerk were killed and another judge was attacked and beaten. During the campaign, overt political violence was often supplanted by more sophisticated forms of intimidation and coerced party membership. Village and commune chiefs, most members of the CPP, threatened opposition party supporters with violence, expulsion from their villages, and denial of access to community resources such as village rice distributions. Thirteen political party activists were killed between the February 2002 commune council elections and the national poll in July 2003.

In the five years since, the government has arrested many opposition party members, journalists, and human rights defenders. Three trade union leaders and an opposition journalist have been murdered. Basic freedoms of assembly and expression have been particularly hard hit, with public demonstrations severely restricted by the government, and opposition-affiliated media intimidated by legal threats and criminal charges.

Politically motivated criminal charges have also long been used as a tactic by the CPP against its political foes. This includes the imprisonment of SRP parliamentarian Cheam Channy, convicted in a show trial in 2005 on baseless charges of creating a rebel army, the arrest of human rights activist Kem Sokha, and the conviction of party leader Sam Rainsy the same year for allegedly defaming government leaders. Royalist party leader Norodom Ranariddh currently faces arrest and 18 months of imprisonment on politically motivated fraud charges if he returns to Cambodia.

Human Rights Watch said that opposition parties, particularly the SRP, have operated in an almost continuous environment of threats, harassment, and intimidation. This has severely impaired the ability of opposition parties to organize, recruit party members and candidates, and reach voters.

Throughout, Hun Sen has made it clear that he would not leave office even if defeated. Though he and his party lost the 1993 election, Hun Sen and the CPP refused to give up power and forced themselves into a power-sharing coalition on equal terms. This has led to widespread cynicism about the value of elections, with many Cambodian concluding that the risks of participating in the political process outweigh the possible benefits.

“When making their judgments about this election, observers must take into account the entire context of the elections,” said Adams. “They must not fall into the trap of using lower standards for Cambodia. Sadly, Cambodia is still not a democracy, or even on the path to democracy.”