The return of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to Cambodia will not be allowed ahead of the next elections, ruling party officials have said.
Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, went into self-imposed exile in November after an arrest warrant was issued against him over a longstanding defamation conviction that would have seen him spend two years behind bars if he had returned.
He was allowed to return to Cambodia from a previous period of self-exile, in July 2013, ahead of the last general election.
He had been handed an 11-year jail term prior to that period of exile for uprooting border markers in a protest against alleged Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territory.
Cambodia is currently in the midst of its most serious political crisis since 2013, with numerous opposition supporters and members jailed on questionable charges by a court system critics allege is politically biased in favor of the ruling party.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, ruled out the possibility of issuing an amnesty for Rainsy while Hun Sen remained prime minister.
In early May, Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged four staffers for local rights group Adhoc – Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lim Mony – with bribery, and Ny Chakrya, deputy secretary general of the National Election Committee as an accomplice to the alleged bribery of a witness in an ongoing case against Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the CNRP.
The decision drew strong criticism from civil society, which launched a protest campaign known as Black Monday in response.
Since the start of the Black Monday protests at least 13 people have been detained by the authorities and later released.
The authorities have said any demonstration not granted express permission will be met with force, while simultaneously declining requests to hold protests.
Sok Eysan, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said Rainsy would not be granted a pardon as “the prime minister has spoken.”
“If there was to be an amnesty,” he added, “the convicted person would need to serve at least two-thirds of the jail term.”
Analysts drew parallels between the current situation and that of 2013, which even saw Buddhist monks assaulted and prevented from joining demonstrations.
Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel, an elections monitoring group, said it was unclear whether Prime Minister Hun Sen would issue another amnesty for Rainsy ahead of the next general election in 2018.
“Previously, we have seen that [amnesty was provided]. As long as it's related to politicians or political issues, the amnesty will be provided,” he said.
Kem Ley, a political analyst and campaigner, said that the situation was volatile and had the potential to change rapidly.
“Cambodian politics is cyclical and it is very unpredictable... regardless of the benefit of the citizens or the nation, they [politicians] can do everything if it’s beneficial to political gain. So, any amnesty will not be about the people or for the good of society, it will be about the leaders who created the events, causing and solving the disputes,” he said.
“Poverty nowadays is not like it was in 1979. In 1979, if you were poor, there were still houses, rice fields and forests. Now the people are very poor without homes, fish, and forests, and they migrated from the country,” he added.