PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's deputy opposition leader, recently pardoned from going to jail for ignoring a court summons, returned to parliament Wednesday saying he and Prime Minister Hun Sen have reached a deal to help reconcile their rival parties for the sake of the country.
Last month, Kem Sokha and fellow lawmakers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party ended a six-month boycott of parliament protesting what they said was politically motivated harassment after several were stripped of parliamentary immunity and sued by Hun Sen's government. Critics accuse Hun Sen of manipulating the courts to weaken the opposition's chances in next year's local polls and the 2018 general election.
Opposition members said they returned to parliament to seek a political truce and scrutinize the national budget.
Kem Sokha, who had taken refuge at party headquarters for months to avoid arrest, was granted a royal pardon last Friday at Hun Sen's request. He had failed to answer a summons in a case involving his alleged mistress that he had described as politically motivated.
He said at Wednesday's National Assembly session that he and Hun Sen agreed to resolve their differences through talk, in what could be taken as a breakthrough in easing tensions. But it also could drive a wedge between opposition leaders.
While Kem Sokha no longer has a jail term hanging over him, Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy remains in political limbo. He has been in exile since November after an old conviction for defamation was restored and his parliamentary immunity was stripped by the government's legislative majority.
Sam Rainsy, a more dynamic and popular politician than Kem Sokha, faces a two-year prison term along with new charges and was recently barred from re-entering Cambodia. He and Kem Sokha are rivals as well as allies, and Hun Sen has a history of using a carrot-and-stick approach to divide his opponents.
Kem Sokha said at the National Assembly meeting that he and Hun Sen had spoken and agreed on some points related to national reconciliation to ensure peace and stability and the country's development.
He also appealed to all Cambodians to stop criticizing their rivals for the sake of national unity.
Hun Sen told the lawmakers that Kem Sokha is now the leader of the opposition in parliament and would be his partner in negotiating all issues of political and national interest.
Hun Sen has been Cambodia's leader for three decades. But in a general election in 2013, his grip on power was shaken when the Cambodia National Rescue Party won 55 seats in the National Assembly, leaving the ruling Cambodian People's Party with 68.
Hun Sen's party has often been accused in the past of using violence or the threat of violence against opponents, but in recent years has stalked its foes mostly in the courts.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng, a close associate of Hun Sen, said a local opposition politician imprisoned in connection with the scandal involving Kem Sokha's alleged mistress was to be released Wednesday and five rights activists detained since April in the same affair would be freed by the end of the month.
More than three dozen opposition politicians, their supporters and civil society activists are currently in prison.
Asked by reporters whether convicted members of the opposition party would also be freed, he said that their cases had not yet been discussed.