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Cambodian opposition leader receives royal pardon

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy vowed to help his party challenge premier Hun Sen in a July 28 vote after receiving a royal pardon on Friday. Rainsy, who lives in France, was convicted in absentia on charges he says were politically motivated.


Cambodia's opposition leader in exile won a royal pardon Friday, vowing to return to help his party fight strongman premier Hun Sen who is seeking to extend his nearly three decade grip on power.

Sam Rainsy, who lives in France, had faced 11 years in jail after he was convicted in absentia for charges that he contends were politically motivated, including publishing a false map of the border with Vietnam.

"All of his convictions are clear now. He is a free man, he is welcome back home and he can come back anytime," cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said.

Rainsy, who wrote to King Sihamoni in June requesting a pardon, told AFP on Friday that he would return "in the next few days" to campaign for his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

"It is a small victory for democracy that the leader of the opposition be allowed to be in the country during election campaigning and on election day," he said by telephone from France.

But "much more remains to be done," he added.

The pardon was requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen "in the spirit of reconciliation", a government official said on condition of anonymity, adding that Rainsy had "no right" to run as a candidate in the July 28 polls.

In his letter to the king requesting the pardon, a copy of which was seen by AFP, Hun Sen said a pardon would allow elections "to be conducted according to democratic principles".

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 28 years, is widely expected to win a majority in the polls.

In May he said he would try to stay in power for another decade, until he is 74. He has previously vowed to hold office until he reaches 90.

US lawmakers have called for the United States to cut off aid to Cambodia unless the vote is free.

US President Barack Obama, during a visit to Cambodia in November to attend an East Asia Summit, pressed Hun Sen on human rights and democracy in a meeting that the White House described as tense.

Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia's longest-serving leaders and has steered the impoverished country from the ashes of civil war and overseen a growing economy through development, tourism, and garment exports.

But his government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists.

Cambodia briefly banned foreign-produced radio broadcasts ahead of the election.

While all political parties are free to canvass voters and hold public events, observers say there is little chance of unseating Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities.

Kem Sokha, acting president of the CNRP, is facing a defamation lawsuit filed by survivors of the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng torture prison, after he allegedly said the jail was a Vietnamese fabrication.

The CNRP have denounced the move as the latest in a series of politically motivated smears aimed at the opposition party ahead of the election.



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