PHNOM PENH - Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni has granted a royal pardon to self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, clearing the way for a possible return home before an upcoming general election.
Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said Friday that Prime Minister Hun Sen had sent a letter to the king requesting the pardon.
Sam Rainsy, who leads the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, announced Monday that he would return to the country before the July 28 election.
Sam Rainsy, 62, told VOA Khmer that his return was one step toward credible elections, but not the only one.
“My presence back in Cambodia does not mean that there is a free and fair election,” he said. “There are still a lot more that we have to do together. This includes the reform of [National Election Committee]. We need to change the composition and leadership of the NEC, and its electoral procedures to ensure transparency and fairness.”
Opposition officials have said the NEC remains biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, instilling a voter registration system that favors the ruling party and failing to properly address campaign and election complaints by the opposition.
Last year, the UN’s special rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, gave 18 different recommendations for election reform. Among them was improvements in the NEC, as well as the achievement of a political solution for Sam Rainsy’s return. The US had also called on the return of Sam Rainsy for the elections.
Sam Rainsy has been living in exile since late 2009, before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for charges widely seen as politically motivated. It is not clear when exactly he will return to Cambodia, but it does not appear he will so far be allowed to vote or contest the elections.
Tep Nitha, secretary-general for the National Election Committee, told VOA Khmer that despite the pardon, he remains ineligible to vote or stand for office.
The pardon was signed by King Sihamoni on Friday, following the request from Hun Sen. In the letter, Hun Sen said he was making the request in the name of “national reconciliation, national compromise and for a free and fair election joined by all parties.”
Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay told VOA Khmer on Friday the pardon was a good sign for Cambodia’s unity. “Because had Sam Rainsy returned to this country without a compromise,” he said, “this country would have faced a lot of turmoil.”