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Forecasting a "rain" of rights abuses

Forecasting a "rain" of rights abuses

POLITICAL repression and intimidation are increasing rapidly as the July 26 national

elections approach, according to human rights workers and opposition party officials.

The past weeks have seen shots fired near opposition politician Sam Rainsy and mounting

cases of violence or harassment targeting opposition supporters around the country.

"The election intimidation season has begun," said one human rights worker.

Citing a "rain of cases" in recent weeks, the worker said: "We can't

keep up."

In the highest-profile case, Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy was holding

a meeting in a Kampot pagoda Feb 13 and, as he was speaking, was startled by five

gun shots.

"A well-known militiaman in the village fired in the air, then he walked away,"

Rainsy said. He averted panic by continuing the meeting.

"I just kept talking after the bullets. People were a little bit frightened,

they all looked at each other, but I didn't move... It was just five bullets. If

there had been more, or a bigger explosion, I would have run for cover!"

The militiaman returned after the meeting carrying a B40 rocket launcher. Upon learning

that Rainsy had departed, he reportedly said: "I would have destroyed him."

Rainsy added that the militiaman had threatened the head monk on Feb 12, telling

him not to attend Rainsy's meeting. Rights workers confirmed the incident, and reported

that the monk has received several threats since.

Asked if he had reported the incident, Rainsy said that the UN and the media had

been informed.

"I am not concerned for myself - I don't think they will assassinate me - but

I am afraid for my supporters. After I leave, who will stay behind to protect my

supporters?" Rainsy asked. "It would be unfair on my part to organize so

many meetings in that way, because I cannot protect them."

Human rights groups and party officials have a growing list of threats to party members.

In one of several cases in Kampot province, two KNP members were summoned to the

local police station where they were forced to sign an oath not to work for opposition

parties. If they continue their political activities, the police said they "will

take measures", according to rights workers.

In Kandal, a KNP member was questioned by a policeman about his political affiliations.

The policeman reportedly told him: "In 1993, a BLDP member was killed, the same

thing could happen to you." The man is now in hiding, rights officials say.

In Prey Veng, where a KNP district head of network was killed with his small daughter

in January, the man who reported the case to human rights groups has gone into hiding

because of threats from local officials. Another district network head has also been

followed and threatened and no longer sleeps in his house, according to party and

rights officials.

The dead man, On Phuong, was a victim of robbery or revenge, according to officials.

But the KNP says he was visited two or three days before his death by a local CPP

activist who asked him to switch allegiances. "They wanted to make him an example

- here is what happens to those who don't follow them," said KNP steering committee

member Tioulong Saumura.

Rainsy said such cases weigh heavily on him. "I have a moral conscience problem,

knowing the election will not be free and fair. Should I encourage my supporters

to campaign? I will be responsible for their deaths to some extent, I will share

this responsibility."

He said that if the intimidation becomes systematic, he will consider pulling out

of the elections.

Other opposition parties may also be beginning to feel the heavy hand of repression.

The murders of three people last week in Banteay Mean-chey were condemned by Funcinpec

in a Feb 24 statement. The wife, son and friend of resistance captain Bun Vanna were

killed on Feb 19 by RCAF Div 12 soldiers, Agence France-Presse reported. Rights workers

said they are still investigating.

Rights workers also report two separate Kampot Funcinpec officials were shot while

walking in the street in February; one was killed by police who said they were "repressing

anarchic forces", and the other was injured by an unknown group of men.

In another Kampot case, a Funcinpec activist persisted in collecting thumbprints

for the party after repeated harassment. His teenage son was arrested on what rights

workers called "trumped-up charges" and the man has now gone into hiding.

Rights workers are worried about several Funcinpec members returned from self-exile

in Bangkok who have subsequently gone into hiding here out of fear of intimidation.

However, a diplomatic source familiar with some of the cases said that some of those

fears may be exaggerated.

Rights workers also claim that there is a rash of prosecutions against minor Funcinpec

officials for illegal weapons possession, the same charge pending in the March 4

trial of party president Prince Norodom Rana-riddh.

Even the small Khmer Neutral Party has had problems. In Kampong Thom province, a

village chief made death threats to a party activist, saying: "If we kill off

one or two of you, it will not make any difference," according to rights workers.

But the brunt of difficulties so far seems to be borne by Rainsy's party. "The

KNP is having difficulty registering, they are being kept in a certain political

limbo, there are a number of incidents brought to the public's attention of intimidation

or violence against KNP activists: one can draw self-evident conclusions from that,"

said a diplomatic source.

"It's very hard being in the opposition in this country when everything is against

you. It's the whole system," Rainsy noted.

However, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak asserted that authorities at all

levels have been instructed to "maintain a neutral political environment"

throughout elections.

"Of course, if there is some harassment, it's not the position to be supported.

So the ministry is against any political activity." He added that anyone who

had been intimidated should report the incident to their local authorities. "They

are Cambodian, they should have the right to do political activity."

National Election Commission chair Chheng Phon said that the NEC has no policy on

election violence yet, although he said earlier this week that political harassment

is his biggest worry.

"This has not been discussed by the NEC yet. The NEC will be responsible for

the safety of the candidates during the election campaign" which has not officially

begun yet, he said.

He added that he had called for the authorities to investigate any reported incidents.

Yet rights workers say that no arrests have been made in connection with any of the

political cases reported to them. With five months to go before elections, the number

of suspected political killings stands at nine.

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