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PHNOM PENH — Cambodia has become more stable since the 1998 election, a major victory for a country that has suffered so much turmoil in the past three decades. The infighting between the two parties of the coalition government has receded, and it is safer to travel around the country as the number of weapons has been curtailed. But the more favorable climate has brought little progress in what is perhaps the biggest hindrance to Cambodia’s democratic development — the impunity of the authorities, from government bigwigs to foot soldiers.

Police, judges and prosecutors often take bribes to supplement their meager salaries, or come under pressure from government or military authorities. Other times, the authorities simply ignore the judicial system. Last December, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the re-arrest of some 50 people who had been arrested for various crimes but had been freed by the courts. Last year, a popular actress who was said to have been Hun Sen’s mistress was shot dead; the victim’s relatives say Hun Sen’s wife ordered the killing (she denies the charge). Also last year, witnesses said the wife of an undersecretary of state, Svay Sitha, participated in an acid attack that severely injured his teenage mistress. In neither case has an arrest been made. Nor has anyone been punished for the major politically motivated killings of recent years, many blamed on thugs of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. These include the 1997 grenade attack on a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and the torture and executions of FUNCINPEC leaders during Hun Sen’s coup in 1998.

Then there are the countless other incidents every day across Cambodia, where the authorities abuse ordinary people while trying to grab their land, abduct their daughters for prostitution, or punish real or perceived wrongdoing. Police officers and prison officials often torture people in their custody. But according to report released in June by the Cambodian human-rights group Licadho, there has been only a handful of torture-related prosecutions in recent years, and apparently only one conviction and prison sentence: a military policeman who spent four months in jail for beating a teenager who died in custody. “The impunity enjoyed by torturers is the largest single reason why torture continues to be inflicted on Cambodians today,” says the report, which documents case after case of horrific torture of men, women and children.

For the people, the authorities mean repression,” said a Cambodian analyst who asked not to be named because he believed the authorities may react badly to his comments. “They are scared and they hate them at the same time. . . . If the situation continues like this, in 10 or 20 years there will be an uprising.”

Something of an uprising is already occurring. Mobs who have lost all trust in the police and courts increasingly are meting out “justice” themselves, by lynching thieves and other suspected criminals on the streets. One attack took place inside the compound of a Buddhist temple, where the monks — the supposed guardians of Cambodian morality — made no attempt to intervene. Last month, hundreds of people seized an alleged rapist from police custody in the northwestern province of Battambang, castrated him and then beat him dead with sticks and rocks. As in other cases of mob killings, police officers claimed they could do nothing to protect the victims.

“Violence has become the normal means of resolving small conflicts,” said Thun Saray, head of the Cambodian human-rights group ADHOC.

All is not bleak, however.

Countries that give aid to Cambodia have made that aid conditional upon the Cambodian government’s implementation of political, judicial and other reforms. Late last year, the government yielded to pressure and rescinded a law that sheltered civil servants who committed crimes.

The human-rights nongovernment organizations and Rainsy’s party remain vocal in exposing and criticizing abuses, and are increasingly joined in the effort by the newspapers. Since the 1998 election, the number of politically motivated killings has decreased, although more cases are now being reported as the country prepares for nationwide commune elections. There have been some exceptions to the impunity. Last month, a commune chief who is member of Hun Sen’s party was arrested for the murder of a political rival in the southern province of Kampot.

In July, the United Nations and the government agreed to establish a joint tribunal for those responsible for the massacres under the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. Punishment of the worst human-rights abusers in Cambodia’s history would make a dent in the present climate of impunity. On the other hand, critics say the government is trying to stall the process. Not until last week did it formally ask the National Assembly to consider the draft law to set up the tribunal. The government includes some Khmer Rouge defectors. Also, the authorities earlier had granted amnesties to Khmer Rouge members to lure them out of the jungles. Last month, a judge freed a former Khmer Rouge commander who was detained for the killings of three Western tourists in 1994. In a verdict that could have dire implications for a future U.N.-Cambodian tribunal, the judge ruled that the commander was immune from prosecution because of the Khmer Rouge amnesty enacted in 1994.

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