PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's king on Friday pardoned the deputy leader of the country's opposition party, acting at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen in a complicated maneuver that could have a major political impact ahead of nationwide local elections next June.
King Norodom Sihamoni's pardon of Kem Sokha, deputy head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, allows him to avoid five months in prison for failing to answer a summons in a case involving his alleged mistress. Kem Sokha, who has claimed his legal problems were concocted for political reasons, has sheltered in his party's headquarters for months to avoid the authorities.
His situation contrasts with that of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who faces a two-year prison term and new charges and is barred from returning from self-imposed exile.
The pardon could deepen a rift between the two opposition leaders and their supporters, weakening their unity ahead of the polls. Sam Rainsy has long been Hun Sen's most formidable critic, but some leading opposition members have already criticized him for failing to return from abroad to challenge the prime minister.
The two opposition figures are rivals as well as allies, and Hun Sen has a history of using a carrot-and-stick approach to successfully divide his opponents.
Those he has managed to co-opt usually find themselves marginalized, and those that resist operate under constant threat of retaliation, lately in the courts, but sometimes physical, as two opposition lawmakers found out last year when they were badly beaten by a pro-government mob outside Parliament.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party ended a six-month boycott of Parliament in November, saying it wanted to ensure the national budget for 2017 was debated properly. It had stopped attending parliamentary sessions after some of its members were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and confronted with lawsuits.
Legal cases against opposition members and rights activists are generally seen as an effort by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party to harass opponents ahead of next year's polls. Cambodia's courts have a reputation for political bias.
Hun Sen's grip on power seemed shaken in 2013's general election when the Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's party with 68. The opposition said they had been cheated and staged a boycott of Parliament. Seeking to shore up his legitimacy, Hun Sen reached a political truce with them in 2014, making some minor concessions over electoral and parliamentary procedures.
But relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated last year after the opposition tried to exploit a volatile issue by accusing neighboring Vietnam, with which Hun Sen's government maintains good relations, of land encroachment. The move proved politically popular, and the government reacted by stepping up intimidation of the opposition party in the courts.
More than three dozen opposition politicians, their supporters and civil society activists are currently in prison.
A letter from Kem Sokha to Hun Sen thanked him for asking the king for the pardon, calling it a good decision showing correct consideration by the prime minister based on Cambodians solving problems among themselves.
He also said it shows that Cambodian politicians can be tolerant with each other, reflecting a civilized history and Buddhist practice.
The letter and the pardon were published online by pro-government media, and Sam Rainsy posted the pardon on his Facebook page.
"This pardon for Kem Sokha is very welcome, but that doesn't change the fact that he should have never been hit in the first place with this bogus, politically motivated charge designed to cripple the leadership of the parliamentary opposition," commented Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "If Prime Minister Hun Sen is really being forthright in wanting reconciliation, then he should also request an immediate pardon for exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and let him return home."
Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this story.