Opposition leader Sam Rainsy will be given a warm welcome by tens of thousands of supporters when he returns to Cambodia from exile Friday, his party said, but election and government officials have virtually ruled out the possibility of him contesting in the country’s July 28 elections.
Ho Vann, a senior official with Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA’s Khmer Service that around 40,000 supporters would be on hand to welcome the leader back home from France, where he has been living to avoid jail time for what he says were politically-motivated convictions.
Cambodia’s government announced last week that, based on Prime Minister Hun Sen's advice, King Norodom Sihamoni had granted a pardon annulling Sam Rainsy's convictions for which he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
But the National Election Committee (NEC), the body that manages the country's elections, said that Sam Rainsy is ineligible to run for office because the registration of candidates has long been closed and that his name has been removed from the electoral register.
Ho Vann said that Sam Rainsy’s supporters will gather at the Phnom Penh airport to await his arrival on Friday morning, local time, and march together with him to the capital’s Freedom Park.
He said Sam Rainsy and CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha had already made a formal request to meet with the king.
Cambodia’s National Police have pledged to deploy a security detail for Sam Rainsy.
But despite the planned fanfare for his return, Sam Rainsy’s status in the election remains unclear, with Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which is widely expected to sweep the polls, and NEC representatives saying Wednesday that the opposition leader was legally barred from participating.
CPP lawmaker and Foreign Affairs Commission chairman Chheang Von said his party could do little to help Sam Rainsy run and that the CNRP should instead focus on helping to restore his status as a lawmaker following the elections.
Sam Rainsy was a member of the National Assembly, or parliament, before he was disqualified in March 2011 following his conviction for various politicized offenses which he said were part of a campaign of persecution by Hun Sen.
Cambodia’s election laws say that a prospective candidate must first be eligible to vote.
As Sam Rainsy has been removed from the voters' register, it remains unclear whether he could be reinstated as a voter and a lawmaker as his offences have been annulled through a royal pardon.
Chheang Von said that even if the CPP, which holds a majority in the parliament, was to call for an amendment to the law allowing him to take part in the election, it would require 20 days to take effect, making it too late for him to stand.
“In order to have a political compromise, we must amend the law,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If we want to amend the law, we must convene the National Assembly and the Senate, and the king must approve the law,” requiring too much time before the election is held, he said.
Instead, Chheang Von suggested that the CNRP “find their own way [to register Sam Rainsy]. Please study the law.”
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha on Wednesday reiterated that Sam Rainsy cannot register to vote, adding that the committee had already approved the voting lists and the party’s candidate lists.
“We can’t do that [allow Sam Rainsy to register],” he said.
“We can’t amend the voting lists and candidate lists.”
Rights groups and election watchdogs have said that national reconciliation in Cambodia can only be achieved if the authorities allow Sam Rainsy to contest in the elections.
The beleaguered CNRP is facing other legal battles as well.
On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipality Court summoned CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha to testify concerning complaints by a woman who claims to have been his mistress and who says he owes her financial support for two children the couple adopted together.
She had earlier filed a lawsuit saying Kem Sokha ordered his bodyguards to beat her when she tried to approach him about the child support at an election rally.
The woman has denied that her lawsuits were brought at the behest of any political party.
Kem Sokha said Wednesday that his lawyer would resolve the latest case.
Last month, a survivor of a prison run by the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s filed a suit with the same court seeking damages from the CNRP official for comments he allegedly made suggesting that the atrocities committed at the facility were staged by Vietnam.
Reported by Taing Sarada and Keo Nimol for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.