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Cambodian Journalist Charged With Incitement Flees Amid Crackdown

In this Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, The first issue of The Cambodia Daily is seen at the newspaper's office, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When Cambodia’s main opposition leader was arrested over the weekend in a surprise police raid, one of this country’s last independent media outlets rushed reporters out in the middle of the night to cover the story, just as it has done for nearly a quarter-century. But the English-language Cambodia’s Daily’s reportage about the arrest of Kem Sokha, who stands accused by the government of treason, was a tragic story in and of itself: It was on the front page of the paper’s final issue Monday, Sept. 4. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A Cambodian journalist charged with “incitement to commit a felony” over his election coverage said on Tuesday that has fled the country fearing arrest and has been given refugee asylum status by the U.N. refugee agency.

Aun Pheap, 54, now in the United States, was charged in August last year along with a colleague, Zsombor Peter, a Canadian, after an interview with former opposition members. It was not immediately clear what felony they are suspected of inciting was.

The pair worked for the now closed Cambodia Daily and face up to two years in prison if found guilty.

The ruling party of Prime Minister Hun Sen and its allies have waged a crackdown against what they say are critics of the government, including human rights advocates and opposition lawmakers, in the lead up to the July 29 general election.

Hun Sen is expected to easily win the vote after the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party was dissolved in November and dozens of its lawmakers were banned from politics.

The English-language Cambodia Daily was shut down last year after it was given a month to pay $6.3 million for years of back taxes amid the crackdown, which has also extended to independent media.

“If I go back to Cambodia, it is for sure that I will be arrested,” Aun Pheap told Reuters on Tuesday from the United States where he is attending a journalism workshop and waiting to hear back about an asylum application there.

Aun Pheap said that the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had granted him refugee status in January and that he left for the United States on March 25.

He denied the charges against him.

UNHCR did not immediately respond to Reuters’ request for comment. A Cambodian government spokesman declined to comment.