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‘Escalation’ a threat to elections: UN envoy

UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith shakes hands with opposition leader Kem Sokha yesterday at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh during an unofficial meeting.
UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith shakes hands with opposition leader Kem Sokha yesterday at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh during an unofficial meeting. Pha Lina

‘Escalation’ a threat to elections: UN envoy

UN Special Rapporteur to Cambodia for Human Rights Rhona Smith said yesterday that a recent “escalation” in the country’s political standoff and limitations on the work of political parties – as evidenced by the opposition’s boycott of parliament – would raise concerns over upcoming elections.

Speaking to the Post yesterday evening, Smith said there was evidence that political parties were increasingly being restricted in their efforts at engagement, and questions were being raised over whether elections in 2017 and 2018 would truly be “full and fair”.

What’s more, she said, the increase in the country’s political tensions had spilled over into curbs on other human rights despite having no basis in law.

“Of course we are concerned that many laws are being applied in a way that restricts the freedom of assembly and association, and those restrictions are not provided for in the law,” she said.

Referring to recent revelations of text messages allegedly sent by Prime Minister Hun Sen threatening the opposition with violence, Smith said statements concerning “violence and bloodshed” were a matter of concern in any situation. The military’s continued vows to crack down on any dissent in the country, she added, went against its constitutional duty to remain impartial.

“The army’s job should be to defend the country, and not any political party.”

Touching on the raft of court cases slapped against opposition members and human rights officials, Smith said she had raised concerns with the Justice Ministry over prolonged detention periods and the seemingly flimsy evidentiary basis for convictions. “I do have concerns that the depth of evidence does not meet the international standards of proof,” she said.

Earlier in the day, Smith met with acting Cambodia National Rescue Party president Kem Sokha to assess the “current state of affairs” and to get his views on recent criminal charges and convictions – including his own, which saw him sentenced to five months in jail for failing to honour a court summons. Sokha is currently outside of custody as the case is still subject to appeal.

“I think there are a lot of issues to be discussed. The constitution is to be applied correctly, and the law is to be applied correctly and equally to all people,” she said upon exiting party headquarters.

Opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said the UN official had discussed recent court cases against CNRP members, and had asked the party for its position on the protection of ethnic minorities.

The CNRP has faced accusations of race-baiting in the past with regard to its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and Chhay Eang would only say yesterday that the party had vowed to implement the Law on Immigration and Nationality to guarantee that all people living in Cambodia did so legally.

Of the political situation, he said, Smith told party members “that from the first time [she came here] up to this visit, the situation has grown more and more serious”.

Smith also held a meeting with Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth yesterday to discuss progress of reforms at Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Speu detention centre.

Ministry spokesman Em Chan Makara said the minister invited Smith to visit the centre if she wished, and insisted that despite criticism from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the centre was being improved.

“The negative things she heard about Prey Speu are old information, but the centre is changing and there is a lot of development there,” he added.

Additional reporting by Sen David

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