By Suy Se (AFP)
Additional reporting: Edward White

Cambodia's government has ramped up use of the courts to harass political activists and rights defenders ahead of elections, Amnesty International said Tuesday, warning the climate of fear was likely to get worse.

Millions of Cambodians will head to the ballot box on Sunday for local polls across more than 1,600 communes – an early litmus test for next year's crunch general elections.

The impoverished Southeast Asian kingdom has been run for more than 32 years by strongman prime minister Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving leaders.

But in 2013 his ruling party suffered a surprise setback when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) made huge gains and nearly won.

Since then the authorities have embarked on what Amnesty described as "a systematic campaign, using the criminal justice system to harass and intimidate" opponents.

In a report titled "Courts of Injustice," the group said at least 27 Cambodian human rights defenders and political activists are currently behind bars on trumped-up charges.

Hundreds of others are subject to criminal proceedings "as part of a concerted attempt" to crush any public criticism.

As a result a large proportion of the political opposition and human rights community "live under the threat of immediate imprisonment," the report said.

Champa Patel, Amnesty's director in the region, said Hun Sen's government has paid "much lip-service" to the judiciary's independence.

"But the evidence reveals a cynical manipulation of the criminal justice system to serve political goals and silence people whose views the government refuses to tolerate," she said.

Sok Eysan, a spokesman for ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), denied the report's allegations and said it was peddling a "Cold War ideology".

Amnesty has always viewed the government as the "enemy," he said.

"They have been attacking us and painting colors on the ruling party since the beginning."

Crucial election

Sunday's election is a bellwether for opposition efforts to unseat Hun Sen after three decades.

Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics, told AFP Hun Sen's party "risks losing control of a lower level of government that they have controlled since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.”

Hun Sen has historically eschewed campaigning himself.

But last week he said he would attend a rally and parade on Friday – something analysts said indicated his nervousness.

Hun Sen and his defenders say the 64-year-old has brought much-needed stability and growth to Cambodia after decades of crippling civil war and genocide.

Detractors say he and a coterie of political allies have amassed huge riches while presiding over an endemic culture of corruption.

His popularity is especially low among the young who make up a huge chunk of Cambodia's population and voted in droves for the opposition in 2013.

In recent weeks Hun Sen has made increasingly shrill speeches, threatening "war" if his party loses.

Unbridled power

Fears have been mounting from across the human rights community that under the leadership of Hun Sen, the Southeast Asian nation, just a few decades after emerging from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and genocide, is sliding back towards authoritarian rule.

A February law change giving the executive and judicial branches unprecedented powers to suspend and dissolve political parties was described by ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights as “the culmination of an ongoing effort to undermine the capacity of the political opposition in Cambodia.”

The law change follows politically motivated legal charges, prosecution threats and harassment against at least 17 of 66 opposition lawmakers, as well as threats of violence and reports of orchestrated physical attacks against opposition members, not to mention the suspicious murder of a leading government critic.

Moreover, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a local NGO, found the effectiveness of the country’s parliament deteriorated in 2016 amid “aggravated manipulation by ruling party’s members of parliaments, against members of the opposition.”

Twenty seven people, deemed to be government critics, have been detained or imprisoned on political charges since May 2015, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO). That includes Kong Raya, a student leader who called for a “color revolution,” meaning non-violent protest, via his Facebook page – a month earlier Prime Minister Hun Sen had urged police to take serious action on any group attempting a color revolution.

Serious consequences for dissent

On March 23, following a half-day trial on March 1, a Phnom Penh court found Oeuth Ang guilty of the premeditated murder of government critic Kem Ley in July 2016 and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Oeuth Ang, thought to be in his late 30’s, has said the murder was over a US$3,000 debt. But there has been widespread speculation the murder was a political assassination. Human rights groups – including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists – say that Cambodia should continue to investigate the killing.

Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy, considered the father of the opposition, fled Cambodia in 2016 to avoid a potential prison sentence for defamation – supporters says the charges were politically motivated – and stood down from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in February.

Signs of progress?

Hun Sen, the former Khmer Rouge commander, has ruled Cambodia since 1985. In the years since, his family has amassed a wealth of more than US$500 million, according to a July 2016 estimate by one international NGO.

While local opponents and international human rights groups have long decried what they believe to be state-sanctioned violence and corruption, foreign cash continues to flow into Cambodia. According to Human Rights Watch, China, Vietnam, and South Korea were key investors in 2016. China, Japan, and the European Union were the leading providers of development-related assistance.

Over the past 15 years, Cambodia has shown the highest increase rate in the Human Development Index (HDI) across East Asia and the Pacific, reflecting improved health, education and standard of living, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

“From 1990 to 2015, Cambodia’s annual HDI growth rate of 1.84 percent has outpaced the average in East Asia and the Pacific, currently at 1.35 percent, making it among the top seven countries in the world with the fastest HDI growth rate,” UNDP said earlier this month.

GDP growth in Cambodia has been steady at about 7 percent since 2011 and is expected to remain at a similar level this year, according to World Bank Statistics.

As the Asia Development Bank (ADB) says, Cambodia, “once synonymous with conflict and poverty,” now has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia.

ADB does caution that while the poverty rate was slashed from 50 percent in 2007 to below 20 percent by 2012, about three-quarters of the country’s 15 million people still live on less than US$3 a day, which means they are highly vulnerable to falling back into poverty.

Academics argue, however, that the focus on Cambodia’s economic metrics, rather than human rights and democracy, has contributed to enabling the continuation of the Hun Sen government.

Read more: Why Everyone is Worried about Cambodia, Again

By Suy Se (AFP)
Additional reporting: Edward White