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Atmosphere of ‘fear’ troubling: rapporteur

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UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on Friday. Photo supplied

Atmosphere of ‘fear’ troubling: rapporteur

United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith said the continued legal actions against opposition members, NGOs and a prevailing sense of “intimidation and fear” had placed the country on a “precipice”, in an environment that is not “conducive to free elections”.

The special rapporteur concluded her 10-day fact-finding visit to the Kingdom on Friday, a month before she presents her annual report to the Human Rights Council in Geneva. While she applauded the orderly and peaceful conduct of local polling on June 4, she noted that the commune elections were bookended by a tense political atmosphere.

“I remain concerned at the atmosphere of intimidation and threats of violence, including by high-level officials, in the lead-up to the election and in the weeks which have followed,” she said at a press conference.

Before the elections in June, senior government members, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Defence Minister Tea Banh, threatened violent repercussions if the opposition contested the results like they did in 2013. Banh promised to “smash the teeth” of any protesters, while the premier said he was ready to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” to prevent civil war.

“It is my hope that, moving forward, Cambodia will retreat from the precipice with no more threats of violence, quelling insurrections or war, or racial inflammatory statements,” she said.

Though Smith’s report will only involve findings through May, the rapporteur said she would raise concerns about the ongoing inflammatory political rhetoric in her statement to the Human Rights Council.

In her statement concluding her visit, Smith also repeated concerns about the government’s ongoing drug crackdown, which has led to overcrowding at prisons and drop-in centres, and the strain it was creating on treatment and reintegration efforts.

While welcoming her comments about the conduct of the elections, Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan was quick to classify threats made by senior party officials as reminders of law enforcement measures that will be taken if the opposition erred. He then proceeded to make a threat of his own.

“This is to make people be careful in making decisions in the coming election,” he said. “But if they [the opposition] protest and cause chaos in the society, there needs to be a crackdown.”

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