PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's self-exiled opposition leader announced Saturday that he will return to his homeland on July 19, less than two weeks before his beleaguered party challenges entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen in national polls.
Sam Rainsy announced the date of his intended return on his Facebook page a day after Hun Sen engineered a pardon for his most prominent rival. Fellow party members gave the same date.
The pardon cleared the way for Sam Rainsy to return to campaign for his party without facing immediate arrest and imprisonment.
It came after the U.S. and others had said the exclusion of Sam Rainsy from the July 28 vote would call into question the polls' legitimacy. His return is not likely to greatly affect the big picture at the polls, where Hun Sen appears assured of extending his 28-year rule.
The U.S. welcomed the pardon, with State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki saying Washington called on the Cambodian government "to facilitate a safe environment for his return and allow for his meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections."
The U.S. statement also urged reforms recommended by a U.N. human rights expert to ensure free and fair elections.
In an emailed statement released Friday by his party, Sam Rainsy thanked the king for his pardon, and said he knew that he had "never done anything wrong."
"I would have returned even in the absence of a pardon to highlight the condition of democracy in my country. My return is no more than a step on a long journey towards achieving self-determination for Cambodia," he wrote.
He criticized the official election body as unsupportive of democracy, saying "The mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia."
The campaign can be expected to be fairly rambunctious. Sam Rainsy is often sharp-tongued in his rhetoric, and his party has been drawing large crowds of enthusiastic young people.
Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party has the resources of the state behind it, and in the past has been accused of using intimidation and force against its opponents.
However, the first shots form the two bitter rivals were an exchange of niceties, as Sam Rainsy conveyed his condolences over the death of Hun Sen's father this past week.
Hun Sen thanked him and his party for the gesture in a letter Friday, and added "I hope that you will return in the nearest future to join political life again."
Sam Rainsy has lived abroad since 2009 to avoid 11 years in prison on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
King Norodom Sihamoni pardoned him Friday at Hun Sen's request. Hun Sen's letter requested the pardon "in the spirit of national reconciliation, national unity and to make sure the national election process is conducted under the principal of democracy, with freedom and pluralism and jointly by all involved parties."
The pardon came shortly after Sam Rainsy declared that he planned to come back before the election, which suggests a deal may have been worked out.
The pardon would appear to benefit both Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen.
Though Sam Rainsy is seen as the sole Cambodian politician with the charisma and resources to present any real challenge to the well-entrenched prime minister and his party, Hun Sen is still expected to win in a landslide.
Still, a return would provide at least a morale boost for Sam Rainsy's party, which has been greatly handicapped by having its leader absent.
For Hun Sen, the move pre-empts some of the criticism that the election is unfair. He has used similar tactics before, pressuring his opponents until they were in disarray, then making conciliatory gestures at the last minute.
Sam Rainsy went into exile after he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison for moving border markers at the frontier with Vietnam, seven years for spreading false information about the border with Vietnam and two years for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong by associating him with the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s.