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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - After the fighting comes fear of repression

After the fighting comes fear of repression

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RUMORS and speculation are flying, but all that can be said for certain is that

the gun battles in Phnom Penh on November 24 left up to eight people dead, a

dozen wounded, and have resulted in hundreds of arrests and detentions across

Cambodia.

Chiep Kim Luch, 28, cradles her month-old son, Men Mai Sambo Rethysak, beneath the hole made by a bullet that pierced their house and killed her husband, schoolteacher Men Sambo (in the portrait), during the November 24 fighting

The Government has attributed the attacks on ministries and a

military barracks to the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF) - an alleged terrorist

group said to be led by Chhun Yasith, a Cambodian-American from

California.

But many people - noting that the attackers seemed more

intent on making noise rather than achieving military objectives - are highly

skeptical of the Government's claim that it was a victim of an attempted coup.

Some observers believe the attacks were actually orchestrated by the CPP

to give the ruling party an excuse to suppress political

opposition.

Human Rights Watch has called for heightened international

monitoring of the human rights situation in Cambodia in the wake of the gun

battles.

In a statement on December 6, Human Rights Watch said in the 12

days since the attack more than 200 people have been arrested - most without

warrants as required by Cambodian law.(See The Fighting, page 9)

"Human

Rights Watch has received reports of one suspect being tortured during

interrogation and at least eleven others kicked or beaten during arrest," said

the statement.

Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights

Watch's Asia division, condemned the November 24 incident but called on

Cambodian authorities to respect both Cambodian and international law in

investigating the matter.

"The Cambodian Government has a right to

address threats to its security in accordance with the law, but the danger here

is that the November 24 incident may become a pretext for the Government to move

against political opponents," he said.

Human rights workers are

particularly concerned about Hun Sen's creation on November 28 of a 19-member

Interministerial Antiterrorism Committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister Sar

Kheng and top level Government, police, and military officials.

The

committee has the power to suspend civil servants, as well as military and

police personnel found to be involved with terrorist activity.

It is also

charged with negotiating for the extradition of suspects from "any countries

where armed terrorists are settling" or "prosecute them in those countries in

accordance with their law".

Commission member Om Yen Tieng, who is also

the head of the Government's official human rights committee and an advisor to

Hun Sen, told the Post that the round-up of suspects since the November 24

incident was being done fairly and according to Cambodia law.

"No one has

been arrested by mistake: we released a number of suspects after they made

agreements and had been educated," he said.

Tieng did not specify what

form the "education" had taken.

"The aim of the antiterrorism committee

is not only to crack down on terrorists responsible for the November 24

fighting, but also to crack down on international terrorism inside Cambodia," he

said. "Journalists should let our committee work quietly on the

crackdown."

Kek Galabru, President of the human rights organization

Licadho, and a spokesperson for the Human Rights Action Committee, said the

Action Committee respects the Government's right to investigate and make arrests

- as long as legal procedures are followed.

Galabru said if the

Government abides by its own laws and procedures then it will avoid the problem

of certain authorities taking advantage of this situation to reap personal

revenge, or to extort money from people.

In a speech in Pursat on

December 5, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Cambodia's human rights workers that

they will be arrested if they hide terrorists from the

authorities.

Galabru said human rights organizations are only concerned

about the laws being upheld. "I'm sorry the Prime Minister always suspects that

human rights workers protect criminals," she said. "And now he suspects that we

protect terrorists.

"No, we don't protect those who break the law. There

is a misunderstanding between [the Prime Minister] and us. We only want to see

the law implemented."

Chea Sophara, Governor of Phnom Penh Municipality,

dismissed as untrue Hun Sen's allegations that human rights workers were

harboring terrorists.

Leang Mengho, President of the Cambodian

Organization for Free and Fair Elections, told the Post that Hun Sen's remarks

were unfair and inapproriate.

"Poor and illiterate people who have

problems seek out human rights NGOs when they need help," he said.

Human

Rights Watch stressed it was not suggesting that anyone found guilty in a proper

judicial process of violence or other unlawful acts should be immune from

prosecution.

"However, it is troubling to see statements from Government

officials criticizing NGOs and others who have called for a measured and lawful

response by the Government to the attack," a Human Rights Watch spokesperson

said.

Dr Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director of the Khmer Institute of

Democracy, believes the November 24 incident may be used by the Government as a

justification for a crackdown on Cambodia's political opposition

parties.

"I fear that [the incident] will be used for a witchhunt to

eliminate all those critical of the policies of our rulers," he said. "It would

not be the first time this has happened in the history of Cambodia. We have had

witchhunts in the past. It is easy to brand somebody as Khmer Rouge, Khmer Bleu,

or Khmer Serei.

"There are aspects of the battles which can lead one to

conclude that they were staged - but we are not yet sure by whom," said Mong

Hay.

He is concerned that the creation of the antiterrorism committee

will allow the Government to bypass judicial procedures in an effort to find

supporters of the "CFF".

"Why not use existing mechanisms to address this

issue? I hope [the committee] will be as effective as the commission they set up

to inquire into the murder of our famous actress [Piseth Pelica - a woman whose

diaries linked her romantically to Prime Minister Hun Sen]... They didn't

produce anything," said Mong Hay.

"These are measures taken by dictators

around the world and I fear our jails will be full of members of the opposition

in the same way the jails of Italy were full of the opponents to

Mussolini."

Mong Hay said people should not be detained and arrested

without court warrants.

"Donors and the international community should

get our rulers to explain to them clearly what has been happening and what the

Government intends to do. This would not be interference into Cambodian affairs,

but should be the concern of all donors."

A diplomatic source said his

embassy has not drawn a final conclusion about the cause of the November 24

attacks, but "it was generally known before the event that an attack had been

planned and the documentary and factual evidence that has come out in the last

two weeks make it clear that it was planned by CFF," he said.

The source

said his embassy is satisfied by the Cambodian Government's interpretation of

events in light of the confession by the alleged field commander of the

attacking forces, Cambodian-American Richard Kiri Kim, and the CFF's admission

of responsibility when its members held a press conference in Washington

D.C.

The diplomat dismissed fears voiced by some observers that the

November 24 attacks will be used to derail the Khmer Rouge trial

process.

He acknowledged that there are signs of a split within the CPP,

but he did not see how a staged gun battle could be used as a pretext for

widening or closing that gap - adding that a political purge is unlikely as

members from all parties are being questioned and Funcinpec members are involved

in the investigations as well.

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