Human rights groups condemn jail term for Cambodian opposition leader

The U.S. and an international human rights group have condemned the sentencing of Cambodia's most prominent opposition leader to a prison term for defaming the prime minister and another political adversary. The conviction in absentia of Sam Rainsy on defamation charges exemplifies "the continuing deterioration of democratic principles such as free speech and expression in Cambodia," the U.S. State Department said.

The London-based Amnesty International called Thursday's verdict "another setback for Cambodia," following earlier attempts to silence opposition voices in the Southeast Asian nation. A Cambodian court sentenced the self-exiled opposition leader to 18 months in prison for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly.

Judge Chiv Keng of Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Sam Rainsy and ordered him to pay Hun Sen and Ranariddh each 20 million riel (US$4,819; Ђ4,052) in damages. The judge also ordered the opposition leader to pay another 16 million riel (US$3,855; Ђ3,241) in fines to the state.

Hun Sen said Sam Rainsy wrongly accused him of being behind a 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful opposition demonstration in the capital that killed 16 people and wounded 114 others.

Ranariddh, head of the royalist Funcinpec party, has also sued Sam Rainsy for claiming he took bribes from Hun Sen to join a coalition government last year. The judge said Sam Rainsy's remarks "seriously affected" the reputations of both Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy, who heads an opposition party that bears his name, has been in self-imposed exile in France since lawmakers of Hun Sen's coalition voted to remove his parliamentary immunity in February.

"We call on the political leadership of the Royal Cambodian government to allow all citizens to express their views peacefully without fear of retribution or intimidation," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack in Washington. "These rights are protected in the Cambodian Constitution as well as international human rights agreements to which Cambodia is a party."

Amnesty said Thursday that the case was "yet another demonstration of how the court system in Cambodia lacks independence, impartiality and credibility,” reports the AP. I.L.

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