By Michael Heath
June 12 (Bloomberg) -- Cambodia's government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, is using the justice system to intimidate journalists and the opposition before next month's general elections, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.
Dam Sith, a candidate of the Sam Rainsy Party and editor of the Khmer Conscience newspaper, was arrested for questioning the role of Hor Namhong, the foreign minister, during the rule of the Khmer Rouge movement, the groups said in a statement.
The arrest ``demonstrates how the criminal justice system is used and abused to silence government critics,'' said Brittis Edman, a researcher at London-based Amnesty. It ``sends a message of fear to journalists and other media workers in the lead-up to national elections.''
The ruling Cambodian People's Party will repeat its victory of 2003 when elections are held July 27 in the South Asian country of 14 million people, Hun Sen said earlier this week. Sam Rainsy spent a year in exile in France from February 2005, during which he was jailed for 18 months in absentia for defaming the prime minister.
Cambodia's economy expanded 9.6 percent in 2007, after growing by at least 10 percent during the previous three years, according to data compiled by the World Bank.
Hun Sen wants to develop oil and mineral resources to attract international investment and reduce Cambodia's dependence on clothing exports and tourism for growth. About a third of the population live on less than 50 cents a day and 90 percent live in rural areas.
Dam Sith's arrest is part of a pattern of intimidation against the opposition and independent media in the run-up to the election, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.
On May 21, Hun Sen threatened the independent Beehive radio station after it broadcast programming from opposition parties, according to the groups. A week later, independent radio station Angkor Ratha had its license, issued less than six months earlier, revoked after it sold air time to opposition parties, the groups said.
Hun Sen said his party may win two-thirds of seats in the 123-member parliament, the Mekong Times reported yesterday.
The party will probably win at least 81 seats, up from 73, and receive 73 percent of the vote versus 64 percent in the 2003 election, the Phnom Penh-based English-language daily cited him as saying. The Sam Rainsy Party won 24 seats in the last ballot.
Hun Sen formed a coalition government in July 2004 with the royalist Funcinpec party, which won 26 seats in 2003.
Dam Sith, who is running for election in Phnom Penh, was arrested as Hun Sen's CPP presses opposition members to join the party and punishes those who refuse, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.
In March, police detained local Sam Rainsy Party leader Tuot Saron in Kampong Thom. Tuot Saron is still in detention and faces charges of illegal confinement after seeking to assist a former party colleague following her alleged defection to the CPP, according to the groups.
The court issued arrest warrants against three other local Sam Rainsy Party leaders, who are in hiding after avoiding arrest, the groups said.
Cambodia's attention has been focused on five former leaders of the Khmer Rouge who are facing trial this year at a United Nations-backed genocide tribunal for crimes allegedly committed during the regime's 1975-1979 rule.
The Khmer Rouge forced the population out of cities as it tried to establish an agrarian state, killing an estimated 1.7 million people through starvation, disease or execution.
The regime was ousted when Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia, plunging the country into civil war. Most fighting stopped after the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that called for a cease-fire and democratic elections, which were held in 1993.
Two years after the elections, Cambodia passed a Press Law that provides some protection to journalists, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty said. It's rarely used. Instead, the so-called 1992 UNTAC Law, Cambodia's current penal code, is used in most legal cases against journalists or media representatives.
``There's little room for critical or opposition journalists in Cambodia, and those who express dissent risk harassment, intimidation and, at times, imprisonment,'' Sara Colm, senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in the statement.
Dam Sith has been charged with violating articles 62 and 63 of the UNTAC Law. His newspaper, Khmer Conscience, is one of the few in Cambodia that is not affiliated with the government or the CPP, which controls all television and most radio stations.
To contact the reporter on this story: Michael Heath in Sydney at firstname.lastname@example.org.