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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Basic rights of Cambodians in "very dark" time

Basic rights of Cambodians in "very dark" time

"WE, THE PEOPLE OF CAMBODIA... stood up with a

resolute determination... to restore Cambodia into an

`Island of Peace' based on a multi-party liberal

democratic regime guaranteeing human rights and the

respect of law ..."

Such is the promise in the preamble to Cambodia's Sept

21, 1993 Constitution. But on its fifth anniversary, with

human rights workers reporting at least 26 extra-judicial

executions discovered since Sept 7, its envisioned

"island of peace" may be instead becoming a

maelstrom of strife.

"Every Khmer citizen shall have the right to life,

personal freedom and security." (Art. 32)

The UN rights office (CO-HCHR) submitted a report

documenting "26 instances of killing and other

apparent violent deaths" to the government on Sept

28, according to director Rosemary McCreery.

The total includes two men shot during the Sept 7 - 14

crackdown on street demonstrations, two exhumed near

Pochentong Airport, and one bodyguard of a Funcinpec

parliamentarian who was shot Sept 17 outside his

brother's house, McCreery said.

Of the additional 21 bodies found in and around Phnom

Penh between Sept 7 - 25, McCreery said: "We cannot

say these deaths were related to the demonstrations

because we can't identify them," adding that she

hoped the government would investigate.

The government's Cambodian Human Rights Committee, for

its part, released its first report on Sep 19, reporting

six killings during Sept 1 - 18. Two overlap with the

UN's report.

Like the UN report, the government's does not assess the

killings as political or not, merely noting "most of

them are difficult to make a clear conclusion of the

motive". No arrests have been made, but

investigations are ongoing.

On Sept 23 the COHCHR released a sixth report on 35

alleged executions. It concluded that sixteen people

"were killed apparently in connection with the

electoral process because of their political beliefs or

affiliation", and that six more were killed "in

cases where both political and personal aspects were

present" between May 20 and Aug 20.

Seven cases were unresolved because of lack of

information; six were deemed unrelated to the election;

fourteen more had already been investigated as

non-political.

While the election-related body count is lower than that

in 1993, human rights workers say the new bodies turning

up around Phnom Penh have them very worried. They also

note that there may be hundreds of people missing since

the crackdown on demonstrations.

Many liken the rights climate to the days following the

July 1997 coup. The UN office documented over 80

extrajudicial executions of opposition supporters during

that time in two memoranda to the government; no arrests

have been made.

In addition, rights investigators themselves have been

subject to death threats. Infiltrators of the COHCHR

radio system threatened UN workers during the

demonstrations.

"Human rights now is in a very bad position,"

said another rights worker. "The future is very

dark."

Such despair is now widespread in the rights community.

An initial period of hope for the new Cambodia stemming

from the 1991 Paris Peace Accords and the UNTAC period

saw a flourishing of human-rights and rule-of-law NGOs

and programs.

But since 1997 starting with the March 30, 1997 grenade

attack on a rally led by dissident Sam Rainsy, which

killed at least 16, and following on to the coup,

election violence and now demonstration-related

violations Cambodia has, with few exceptions, regressed

in terms of human rights and impunity, experts say.

"The right to ... non-violent demonstration shall be

implemented in the framework of a law." (Art. 37)

Peaceful protesters found out how well their right to

demonstrate was protected when police descended with riot

sticks, electric batons and even guns.

Demonstration speakers did not fare so well either. Kem

Sokha, of the Son Sann Party, and Po Tey, of the

Dharmacracy, Women and Nation Party have been summoned to

the Municipal Court for questioning on their role in the

"Democracy Square" sit-in, according to

Municipal Judge Mong Moni Chariya.

The judge said summonses had been sent to their homes

asking them to appear in court on Oct 1, but that the

court had not been notified whether they had been

received.

Meanwhile, confusion reigned over whether Rainsy was

wanted for questioning or not. Mong Moni Chariya said

Sept 28 that a Sept 7 summons for Rainsy was still in

effect.

But the Information Ministry said Sept 30: "The

court has not yet had a plan to summon Sam Rainsy."

Rainsy left for Bangkok Sept 25 and was scheduled to

depart Oct 1 on an international lobbying tour. Sakarach

said Rainsy and his wife, MP Tioulong Saumura, would

likely be gone at least two weeks.

"Citizen's freedom to travel ... shall be

respected." (Art 40)

Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith has

said that opposition politicians except those with

summonses outstanding were now free to leave the country,

thus confirming the end of a quasi-official travel ban

dating from Sept 7.

Several politicians had been stopped at the airport

trying to leave the country between Sept 10 and the

convening of the National Assembly on Sept 24. After

Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh (who had left once

previously) flew out unhindered on the 25th, others have

followed.

Kem Sokha, who exposed the ban when he tried to fly out

on Sept 10, says he fears for his life. Prime

Minister-elect Hun Sen has repeatedly singled out Sokha

in reference to making arrests. Sokha has gone into

hiding and has been unreachable by telephone for several

days.

Sabu Bacha, second vice-president of the Son Sann Party,

said on Sept 29 that Sokha was secure. "I don't know

where he is, but I know for sure he is safe because I

contacted him and he told me he was safe."

One democracy expert suggested that, while Sokha's fear

was understandable, he might have improved his situation

by dramatizing his plight.

"I cannot speak for him, but if I were Kem Sokha...

I would chain myself, padlock myself at the airport and

throw away the key to highlight the case," said Lao

Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for

Democracy.

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