UN criticizes verdict against Cambodian opposition leader

A top United Nations envoy expressed deep concern about the recent defamation verdict against an exiled Cambodian opposition leader, saying it is a serious threat to the country's political pluralism. Yash Ghai, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for human rights, said, in a Dec. 27 statement received Wednesday, that the 18-month jail sentence for Sam Rainsy "is a cause for deep concern."

"Space for political discourse and public debate is being increasingly challenged, including through the courts," he said. "This deeply worrying trend is a serious threat to freedom of expression and political pluralism in Cambodia," he added.

Last week, Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 18 months in prison for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly. The judge convicted him for wrongly accusing Hun Sen of being behind a 1997 grenade attack on a peaceful opposition demonstration in the capital that killed 16 people and wounded 114 others.

Sam Rainsy was also found guilty of alleging that Ranariddh took bribes from Hun Sen to join a coalition government last year. He has been ordered to pay a combined 56 million riel (US$13,493; Ђ11,388) in damages to his political adversaries and fine to the state. The United States and human rights groups have condemned the verdict as another setback for democracy in Cambodia. Ghai noted that the conviction of Sam Rainsy was one of a series of defamation charges the government has brought against its critics over the last two years, using criminal provisions of an outdated law introduced by the United Nations provisional authority in Cambodia in 1992.

Sam Rainsy fled to France after lawmakers of the Hun Sen-led coalition government voted in February to strip him of his parliamentary immunity, reports the AP. I.L.

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