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Cambodia Court Charges Opposition Politician with Defamation

FILE - Vice President of Candlelight Party, Son Chhay, waves flags during a campaign rally for the upcoming local elections on June 5, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia May 21, 2022.

A leading Cambodian opposition politician who publicly complained about alleged unfairness in June local elections has been charged with defamation, his lawyer said Thursday.

Son Chhay, deputy president of the opposition Candlelight Party, said in an online interview after the polls that the state National Election Committee was biased in favor of the governing Cambodian People’s Party. He also said there was vote-buying and intimidation of voters. His allegations were denied by the government.

Both the National Election Committee and the Cambodian People’s Party sued Son Chhay for defamation. Lawyer Choung Chou Ngy said Son Chhay was officially charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday.

Son Chhay, who holds joint Cambodian and Australian nationality, left Cambodia before the lawsuits were filed.

The election committee had demanded a published apology from Son Chhay and the Cambodian People’s Party sought $1 million in compensation.

The lawyer said the court has not set a date for the trial. Court officials could not be reached for comment.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s governing party won June's elections with 74.3% of the votes, with the Candlelight Party receiving about 22.3%. The Cambodian People’s Party has held an iron grip on power for decades, and has the huge advantage of controlling almost every level of government.

Hun Sen, an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic state, has held power for 37 years. He has said he intends to stay in office until 2028, and has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him.

In recent years, Hun Sen’s government has aggressively pursued legal action against its opponents, hindering their ability to operate freely, and sometimes hounding them into exile or jailing them.

In 2017, the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved by the Supreme Court on a charge of treason that was widely seen as politically motivated to ensure a victory for the Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election. Before its dissolution, the opposition party had been expected to mount a strong challenge, but with it off the ballot, Hun Sen’s party won all the seats in the National Assembly.

The Candlelight Party is the unofficial successor to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which made a much stronger second-place challenge to the governing party in the last local elections in 2017.