UPDATED at 5:50 p.m. EST on 2013-07-12
Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has received a royal pardon and can return to the country to campaign but not contest in the July 28 general elections, the government announced Friday.
It said that based on Prime Minister Hun Sen's advice, King Sihamoni has granted a pardon annulling Sam Rainsy's previous convictions for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Sam Rainsy, who lives in France, had been convicted for charges that were widely seen as politically motivated, including publishing a false map of the border with Vietnam.
Although he is free to return to his country after four years in exile, he will not be allowed to contest in the elections, which Hun Sen's party is widely expected to win.
The National Election Committee, the body that manages the country's elections, said registration of candidates for the polls have long been closed and that Sam Rainsy's name has been removed from the electoral register.
“His name has already been deleted from the voting list,” Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha He said. “He can’t run for the election."
"I don’t know how to fix this because everything must be in accordance with the law.”
The royal pardon came five days after Sam Rainsy declared that he would return before voting day on July 28 in an indication that a compromise may have been forged.
Speaking from France, Sam Rainsy told RFA's Khmer Service that the royal pardon, for which he had requested to King Sihamoni last month, has nothing to do with Hun Sen and rejected any suggestions that a "deal" had been worked out with the Prime Minister for his return home.
"This is a step in the direction of Cambodian national reconciliation on the basis of democracy," he said. "I know that I have never done anything wrong. I would have returned even in the absence of a pardon to highlight the condition of democracy in my country."
He accused the National Election Committee of being biased and said he would push to get his name back in the electoral rolls and become a candidate in the polls.
The 64-year-old charismatic leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said the Committee was controlled by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and needed to be revamped to pave the way for free elections.
The CPP has won the last two polls by a landslide despite allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
"The mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia, as promised in the Paris Peace Agreements, and does not advance NEC reform," Sam Rainsy said.
The United States, in welcoming the royal pardon for Sam Rainsy, urged Phnom Penh "to allow for his meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Sam Rainsy told RFA he would arrive in Cambodia next week, saying he was waiting for a new passport from the Cambodian government.
“The latest would be next week but I will return sooner than that if it is possible,” he said.
Sam Rainsy's supporters flocked to the streets of the capital Phnom Penh in jubilation.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said that Hun Sen wanted to allow Sam Rainsy to return "to provide peace to Cambodia."
“Sam Rainsy has requested a royal pardon and the King granted him amnesty,” he said. “Sam Rainsy also has raised the fact about Samdech's [Hun Sen's] move for national reconciliation and to strengthen Cambodia's internal situation,” he said.
Phay Siphan also said he expected Sam Rainsy to be in Phnom Penh by next week in time for the funeral of Hun Sen's father Hun Neang, who died Friday of natural causes at the age of 89.
"Participation in the funeral is showing unity. I hope Sam Rainsy will participate in the funeral and share Samdech's mourning."
In May, Hun Sen said he would try to stay in power for another decade, until he is 74. He had previously vowed to hold office until he reached 90.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.