Sam Rainsy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
A court on Friday issued an arrest warrant for Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy over a 2011 conviction for defamation, with critics saying the move was politically motivated.
It came a day after strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened Rainsy with legal action over comments he made in Tokyo questioning the ruling party’s commitment to future elections. Rainsy is now in South Korea.
Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page: “I cannot keep calm because of this insult by the son of a traitor.”
Sam Rainsy’s father, Sam Sary, was forced to flee Cambodia in 1959 after being suspected of involvement in a plot to overthrow Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
The warrant concerns Rainsy’s 2011 conviction in absentia for comments he made in 2008, alleging that Foreign Minister Hor Namhong had run a prison for the Khmer Rouge regime.
He was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of around US$2,000.
Rainsy was granted a royal pardon in 2013, allowing him to return to Cambodia from four years of self-imposed exile and take part in general elections in July that year, in which he won a seat.
However, he had been convicted of a string of offences and the pardon only specifically mentioned another conviction, stemming from his removal of demarcation posts along the border with Vietnam in 2009.
Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won 55 of 123 seats in National Assembly in the 2013 election, but led months of street protests after accusing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of election fraud.
The CNRP ended a year-long parliamentary boycott in August last year after reaching a deal with the ruling party on election reform.
But tensions have increased recently, and two opposition MPs were beaten up outside parliament last month.
The arrest warrant was a “very serious blow to even the facade of democracy in Cambodia”, opposition MP Mu Sochua told the BBC.
“While the world and in particular the Asian region is inspired by the determination of the people of Myanmar, Cambodia sadly is seeing a deteriorating pre-election political environment,” she said.
The Appeals Court upheld the verdict in the defamation case in March 2013.
A senior member of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Chheang Von, said that verdict stripped Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity, meaning he could be arrested on his return to Cambodia.