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Opposition Leader Promises End to Exile Before Elections

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, left, who is currently living in exile in France, talks about the opposition's plans for 2013 elections in Cambodia during the launching of the International Parliamentary Committee for Democratic Elections in Cambodia with Philippine Sen. Franklin Drilon Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, in San Juan, east of Manila, Philippines.
Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia’s opposition, says he will return ahead of the July 28 elections, ending nearly four years in exile and facing more than 10 years of imprisonment for a raft of charges he claims are politically motivated.

“Because Cambodia is at a turning point where it is imperative to consolidate the hopes of the Cambodian people and to reinforce the democratic process, I have decided, by my own volition and fully aware of the personal risks that I will run, to return before Voting Day,” he said in a statement Sunday.

Sam Rainsy, 64, has led the opposition in elections since 1995. He fled the country following court charges against him in October 2009, when he destroyed border markers near Vietnam in Svay Rieng province. He was found guilty in absentia for charges related to that act, as well as the posting of a border map on his website alleging Vietnamese encroachment, which the Cambodian government said was an act of incitement and disinformation.

He has remained in exile abroad since then, seeking a political solution to charges he says are politically motivated. No solution has been forthcoming, and Cambodian government officials say his case remains for the courts to determine.

“I have decided to return because my presence as leader of the opposition and the fate that awaits me will be a test of the reality of the ‘free and fair elections’ promised by the Paris accords, which also promised for Cambodia ‘a system of liberal democracy, on the basis of pluralism,’” Sam Rainsy said Sunday.

Mu Sochua, a leading member of the opposition, told VOA Khmer Sunday that Sam Rainsy’s exact date of return has not been determined.

“We are delighted to welcome him in Cambodia,” she said.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Rescue Party, said Sam Rainsy is a necessary part of the election process.

“Without Sam Rainsy, both the winners and losers are worthless,” he said.

However, Sam Rainsy’s return would create a tough situation for the Cambodian government, said Lao Mong Hay, an independent political analyst.

If he returns and is not arrested, the government will appear weak, Lao Mong Hay said. If Sam Rainsy is arrested, the government will face condemnation locally and internationally, he said.

Sam Rainsy has requested a royal pardon for his alleged crimes from King Norodom Sihnaouk, but judicial officials say they have not received a pardon request from the king.

“If Sam Rainsy returns, he will receive punishment the same as all prisoners,” said Sam Prachea Meanith, cabinet director for the Ministry of Justice.

The US, meanwhile, supports a “level playing field” for the elections, US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said in an e-mail. That includes “the unfettered participation of opposition parties, including one of the leading opposition leaders.”