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Opposition Seeks To Weather Attacks Over Alleged Khmer Rouge Remarks

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PHNOM PENH - A senior opposition party official says he will not apologize for remarks on the Khmer Rouge that he maintains were manipulated by the ruling party.

Kem Sokha, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said in a statement Monday he hoped to “reduce people’s temper” over remarks he says have been manufactured by the Cambodian People’s Party ahead of July’s national elections. But he also said he would not apologize for something he didn’t do.

Kem Sokha is the ranking member of the opposition in Cambodia. Party president Sam Rainsy remains in exile, facing imprisonment for charges he says are politically motivated if he returns to Cambodia.

Supporters say he is under attack from the ruling party—through the media, demonstrations and even the National Assembly—and is being falsely accused of claiming that atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh were staged by Vietnamese forces who expelled the regime.

Kem Sokha has repeatedly denying making such statements.

“Kem Sokha never said that there was no killing and torture in Toul Sleng prison, and he never had contempt for the souls of the dead people in that prison,” the Rescue Party said in a statement. Kem Sokha and the Rescue Party are seeking “real justice” for victims of the regime, the statement said.

Khmer Rouge victims and supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party held a demonstration in Phnom Penh on Sunday to demand an apology for the alleged remarks.

Outspoken Tuol Sleng survivor Chhum Mey, who has led the call for an apology, could not be reached for comment Monday.

But another representative of victims, Sum Rithy, told VOA Khmer that Kem Sokha’s statement was not enough. “We are all just asking him to apologize to the victims’ souls at Tuol Sleng prison,” he said. Without an apology, more demonstrations will be held, he said.

Sunday’s demonstration, in which Khmer Rouge victims, CPP supporters, students and others marched across the capital, comes just days after the National Assembly rushed the passage of a law criminalizing the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes.

Critics of the law say it appears aimed at Kem Sokha in an attempt to weaken the opposition ahead of the July 27 polls. The law was passed by a sweeping majority of ruling party lawmakers, after an Assembly committee expelled 29 opposition representatives from the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties for joining in the new Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The US State Department has condemned the expulsion, saying it “starkly contradicts the spirit of a healthy democratic process.”

“We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement. “Stripping the salaries and parliamentary status of opposition party legislators deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process in Cambodia. Full participation of all elected representatives is essential to the democratic process. We urge the National Assembly leadership to allow all elected members to fulfill their commitment to serve the Cambodian people.”

Ruling Party lawmaker Chheang Von told VOA Khmer Monday that the US statement was “not acceptable” and was a threat to Cambodia’s sovereignty.

US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said in an e-mail to VOA Khmer that the US is calling on the government to ensure the safety of candidates for the upcoming election.

“It is the Royal Government’s responsibility to promote a peaceful and violence-free campaign and electoral environment,” he said.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said the ruling party has made a habit of ignoring such criticism from the international community. “I think it’s time for the ruling party to respect law and democracy in Cambodia,” he said.