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Cambodian Opposition Leader Appeals against Treason Conviction

Kem Sokha, a founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, offers a greeting from his car in front of his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 3, 2023.

A top Cambodian opposition leader on Thursday appealed against his treason conviction for trying to topple long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, his lawyer said, criticising the verdict as "unjust".

A court this month found Kem Sokha, a co-founder of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), guilty of conspiring with foreign entities to overthrow Hun Sen's government.

Sokha was sentenced to 27 years in prison and immediately placed under house arrest.

He was also stripped of his political rights and banned from meeting with foreigners or anyone who is not a family member without permission from the court.

"He appealed against the verdict because it is unjust," Meng Sopheary, one of Sokha's lawyers, told AFP.

Sokha, 69, has repeatedly denied the charges against him since his arrest in 2017.

Another lawyer Ang Udom said Sokha "refused to accept the unjust verdict that made him lose a lot of rights".

Rights groups say the charges against Sokha were designed to bar him from politics ahead of July's elections.

The United States characterised Sokha's sentence as a "miscarriage of justice" based on a "fabricated conspiracy".

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 38 years, has wound back democratic freedoms and used the courts to stifle political opponents, according to rights groups.

Hun Sen boasted on Thursday that he was the world's longest-serving prime minister.

"First, I broke the record as the world's youngest prime minister 38 years ago. Now, I have broken another record as the longest-serving prime minister in the world," Hun Sen said at a graduation ceremony.

Two months after Kem Sokha's arrest in 2017, Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, once considered the sole viable opponent to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

That paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018, turning the country into a de facto one-party state.

Scores of opposition figures were convicted of treason last year and Hun Sen ordered the shutdown of one of the country's few remaining local independent media outlets last month.