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Violence Reporting Flawed: Monitors

On Tuesday morning, Nhem Sophath, a 33-year-old commune organizer for the Human Rights Party, walked around several villages in Kampong Speu province to gather activists for an election campaign march that would be joined by party president Kem Sokha and other officials.

By 6 pm, the march was finished, and Nhem Sophath went home, changed his clothes and set off for a walk to his local pagoda, to receive a blessing. On the dark road, he encountered two men. One of them beat him with a bamboo pole, breaking his left arm in two places, Nhem Sophath said Thursday.

Nhem Sophath fled and hid in a nearby house, and after the two assailants left, he immediately informed the local commune election committee, or CEC, office. He filed a complaint to police the next day.

Nhem Sophath believes the attack was politically motivated. But the CEC is not sure.

"It is a criminal case," Meas Kimthon, CEC chairman for Trang Rovea commune, in Udong district, Kampong Speu, said by phone Thursday. "The victim should complain to the police. We have no authority to solve this assault case, because there is a very serious injury."

Nhem Sophath's alleged attack and the CEC's reaction to it demonstrate one concern that election monitors have with the reporting of potential election violence.

Election observers are concerned the process does not provide accurate information on violence, because CEC offices can interpret an incident either as a political conflict or simply a criminal infraction, moving the case to police instead of investigating for themselves. In such procedures, observers say, election violence can go underreported.

"If the CEC understands that the dispute is a serious crime, the CEC has no right to investigate the case, so [they] send it to the police and the courts," Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. "This decision is the right thing, but CEC has to watch over or find out the real reason of the dispute."

The concern is that there is no incentive for the CEC to investigate further.

"We are very concerned about the violent cases during the election process and the NEC procedure, because when violence occurs, the CEC or PEC can transfer the violent incident from politics to a criminal case, and not investigate or show how it relates to the election process," Koul Panha said.

This procedure is complicated and difficult for justice to be found for the victim, he said.

"NEC procedure for the CEC rules is very confusing," said Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia. "It cannot separate clearly political violence relating to the campaign and a criminal case."

In the case of Nhem Sophath, CEC officials say they will keep his report on file, but they have so far not reported it to the provincial election committee as a case of election violence.