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A top Cambodian opposition politician is charged with inciting disorder for criticizing government

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The leader of a recently formed Cambodian opposition party has been charged with inciting social disorder, his lawyer said Saturday, in the third major legal action this month targeting critics of the government of Prime Minister Hun Manet,

Sun Chanthy of the Nation Power Party, established late last year, was formally charged Friday by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and sent to pre-trial detention in the northwestern province of Pursat, according to Choung Chou Ngy. He said his client could be sentenced to six months to two years in prison if convicted, and that on Monday he will seek his release on bail.

Cambodia’s government has long been accused of using the judicial system to persecute critics and political opponents. The government insists it promotes the rule of law under an electoral democracy, but political parties seen as mounting strong challenges to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party have been dissolved by the courts or had their leaders jailed or harassed.

Sun Chanthy, 41, was arrested on Thursday at Phnom Penh International Airport after returning from a trip to Japan where he held a meeting with several hundred Cambodian overseas workers. He spoke there about the desire for the government to allow more freedom for opposition parties.

In remarks that were shown on his Facebook page, he also criticized Hun Manet’s government for policies that forced people to fall into debt to banks, while at the same time running up the nation’s debt to foreign countries.

Sun Chanthy also reportedly criticized the government’s system of issuing special cards to poor families that allow them to receive social welfare handouts.

The Justice Ministry said in a statement that he was charged for his remarks about the cards because he had “twisted information” to dishonestly suggest that they would only be distributed to those who join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Sun Chanthy’s Nation Power Party said his arrest was an act of intimidation that critically affected the country’s process of democracy. It called for his unconditional release.

Cambodia under its former Prime Minister Hun Sen, who held power for almost four decades, was widely criticized for human rights abuses that included suppression of freedom of speech and association. He was succeeded last year by his son, Hun Manet, but there have been few signs of political liberalization.

Sun Chanthy’s detention comes just days after labor union leader Morm Rithy was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the same court in connection with comments he made in a live broadcast on Facebook two years ago that criticized the arrest of a casino worker.

On May 3, Cambodia’s high court upheld the two-year prison sentence of a prominent female labor union leader. Chhim Sithar, president of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld, had originally been convicted in May 2023 of incitement to commit a felony during a long-running strike of workers at a casino resort in Phnom Penh.

Sun Chanthy had been a top leader of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party and was closely associated with its chief Sam Rainsy, the harshest critic and most popular opponent of the Cambodian People’s Party for decades. Sam Rainsy has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences on defamation, treason and other charges, which his supporters consider politically motivated.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party had been expected to present a strong challenge to the ruling party in the 2018 general election. But as part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition before the polls, the high court dissolved the party, and the Cambodian People’s Party subsequently won every seat in the National Assembly.

Sun Chanthy joined the Candlelight Party, the successor to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was barred from competing in last year’s general election on a technicality. He left the Candlelight Party to help form the Nation Power Party in October last year.

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Peck reported from Bangkok.

By SOPHENG CHEANG and GRANT PECK
Associated Press

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