PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An appeals court in Cambodia upheld Friday a five-month prison term for an opposition leader in a case involving his alleged mistress, but which his supporters say is politically motivated.
Chief Judge Seng Sivutha of the Appeals Court said that Kem Sokha's refusal to twice answer court summons was "intentional" and "a real crime."
Kem Sokha, the deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, is the latest opposition figure to run afoul of the law in what activists say is the willful use of the courts by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to suppress critics.
The case against him surfaced when police opened a criminal investigation against a woman who claimed that Kem Sokha promised her money and a house, and audio clips of her purported conversation with Kem Sokha were mysteriously released.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said his client couldn't appear before the court in May because he was busy with his duties as lawmaker. He also argued that Kem Sokha enjoyed parliamentary immunity from arrest.
The opposition leader plans to appeal at the Supreme Court.
The case is one of several hanging over opposition leaders in what is generally seen as an attempt to disrupt their organizing efforts ahead of local elections next June. The next general election is not until the middle of 2018, but holding power at the local level is an advantage when national polls are held.
A month ago, another opposition lawmaker, Um Sam Ann, who has been a strong critic of the government's handling of demarcating the border with neighboring Vietnam, was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for his online postings.
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy did not return from a trip abroad last November when an old conviction for defamation was restored and his parliamentary immunity was stripped by the government's legislative majority.
Hun Sen has been Cambodia's leader for three decades. But a general election in 2013 shook his grip on power when the CNRP mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party with 68.
The government reacted by stepping up intimidation of the opposition party in the courts, which are seen as being under its influence.