PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thousands of government supporters rallied in Cambodia on Sunday against comments allegedly made by an opposition leader about atrocities during the "Killing Fields" era, as the United States denounced moves to expel opposition lawmakers from parliament.
Kem Sokha, acting president of the newly formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was reported to have said that atrocities at the S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh had been staged by Vietnam when its troops invaded Cambodia in 1978.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1997, is close to Vietnam and China. He was himself a fighter for the ultra-maoist Khmer Rouge in power from 1975 to 1979, when an estimated 1.7 million people died but defected to Vietnam.
An estimated 20,000 demonstrators around the country demanded that Kem Sokha apologize. He has denied making the comments.
The government rushed through a law on Friday, making it an offence to deny crimes perpetrated under the Khmer Rouge. The offence is punishable by a jail sentence of six months to two years and a fine of up to $1,000.
Separately, a panel dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) expelled 29 members of parliament on June 5 because three parties had merged to contest a general election on July 28 and, it ruled, that made them ineligible to continue to sit for the old parties.
Chheang Vun, chairman of the Commission on Foreign Affairs and a member of the CPP, denied the CNRP was being targeted and said there was a legitimate, technical reason for why the lawmakers could not remain in parliament.
However, the U.S. State Department condemned the move in a statement dated June 8.
"We strongly support a political process that includes the full participation of all political parties on a level playing field," it said, adding the expulsion "deprives the Cambodian people of their voice and hurts the democratic process".
Referring to the atrocities scandal, Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, denounced the "blatant politicization of our country's history in order to score points before the national elections".
The CNRP said a tape purportedly carrying Kem Sokha's comments had been edited by the government to set him up.
"If you look at where this tape is from, it's obvious: the source is the Council of Ministers," Mu Sochua, a senior member of the CNRP, said.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Alan Raybould and Jeremy Laurence)