PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's charismatic self-exiled opposition leader has vowed to return to Cambodia ahead of this month's general election to help challenge the 28-year rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The government said Monday that Sam Rainsy is welcome home but could face arrest if he returns.
Rainsy made the announcement Sunday in a letter to the international community from France where he is living to avoid a 12-year prison sentence on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
The opposition leader is barred from running for office due to the conviction. He says his return will test whether the elections are "free and fair" — as the government claims.
The U.S. State Department has said the exclusion of Rainsy calls into question the legitimacy of Cambodia's democratic process. There are also doubts over the neutrality of the election commission and the composition of voter rolls.
"We urge the Cambodian government to allow Sam Rainsy to return without fear for his personal safety or incarceration," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday. "Free and fair elections require a level playing field, including the unfettered participation of opposition parties and voters and respect for human rights."
U.S. lawmakers and human rights activists are pushing to cut the more than $70 million in annual American aid to Cambodia if the State Department judges the elections as not "credible and competitive."
In the run-up to elections, opposition lawmakers were expelled from parliament for merging parties to contest the vote. The opposition was already handicapped by Rainsy's absence.
Hun Sen is one of Asia's longest-serving and most ruthless leaders. He has run Cambodia since 1985 with little tolerance for opposition, propelled by his well-financed political machine. Rainsy is seen as the sole Cambodian politician with the charisma and resources to present any real challenge.
"I have decided to return because my presence as leader of the opposition and the fate that awaits me will be a test of the reality of the 'free and fair' elections," Rainsy wrote in his letter.
"(I am) fully aware of the personal risks that I will run, to return before the voting day, " he said.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, declined to reveal the date of Rainsy's return but said he would be greeted at the airport by thousands of party members.
"I can confirm that Sam Rainsy will definitely arrive in Cambodia ahead of election day," the spokesman said.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman said Rainsy would have to face the law.
"We have never barred him from returning to Cambodia, but once he arrives he must face the law, because he is a convicted person," said the spokesman Tith Sothea.
Rainsy was sentenced in 2010 to two years in jail for uprooting border markers with Vietnam. He was also sentenced to 10 years in prison for spreading false information about the border dispute. Critics called both cases examples of the government's use of the courts to intimidate opponents.
Hun Sen, who is 60, said recently that he intends to wield power until he is 74 — revising an earlier vow to stay in power until he's 90.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.