Cambodian opposition leader convicted as political pressure rises

Cambodian opposition party deputy leader Kem Sokha (R) delivers a speech at the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters in Phnom Penh, on September 9, 2016 (AFP Photo/Tang Chhin Sothy) (AFP/File)

A leading Cambodian opposition politician was convicted Friday in a trial criticised by rights groups as long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen's latest effort to hobble rivals ahead of 2018 elections.

Acting opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to appear in court for a case related to an alleged sex scandal.

"The (court) decided to convict Kem Sokha, age 63, to five months in jail," said judge Keo Mony.

The politician has spent the past few months holed up in the headquarters of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to avoid arrest, amid threats from Hun Sen that he could be jailed at any time.

But he made a rare appearance Friday morning to speak to hundreds of supporters gathered outside the party's office.

He condemned the one-day trial, which he boycotted, and accused the government of trying to "end my political career".

"Using the court to violate my political and election rights is not only making the upcoming election illegitimate, but it also threatens Cambodia's democracy," he told a crowd as police looked on.

Human Rights Watch has lambasted the case as the latest move in "an increasingly violent Cambodian government campaign to prevent free and fair elections in 2018".

According to the watchdog, two opposition MPS are currently in prison, at least 10 more are facing charges, and more than 20 political activists and rights workers have faced legal action over the past year.

The opposition party's top leader and Hun Sen's chief rival, Sam Rainsy, has spent nearly one year in self-imposed exile to avoid arrest warrants he claims are politically-motivated.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every trick in the book to neutralise the opposition," HRW's Asia Director Brad Adams said in a statement ahead of Friday's trial.

The wily premier has loomed over Cambodian politics for three decades, steering the impoverished nation out of the ashes of civil war.

But opposition groups have gained ground amid growing disillusionment with endemic corruption, rights abuses and political repression.

The opposition CNRP accuses Hun Sen of denying it a majority by rigging the 2013 election in his favour, a charge the premier denies.