Cambodia court fines exiled opposition leader $1 million

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A court in Cambodia on Friday ordered an exiled opposition leader to pay $1 million for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen in a Facebook post.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Sam Rainsy guilty of defamation in the latest case against him brought by Hun Sen and his ruling party. Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid a two-year prison sentence also on charges of criminal defamation.

The conviction comes amid an intense push by Hun Sen's government to neutralize political opponents and silence critics ahead of an election next year. A Supreme Court last month ordered Sam Rainsy's party, the country's only legitimate opposition, to be dissolved on the grounds that it was plotting to overthrow the government.

Kem Sokha, who took over the party, has been detained on treason charges and is awaiting trial.

The government has also intensified restrictions on civil society groups and independent media outlets. The campaign, which means Hun Sen will face no serious challengers in the election, has prompted international condemnation.

The latest case against Sam Rainsy stems from a Facebook post in January in which he accused Hun Sen of offering $1 million to a political operative to attack the opposition. Hun Sen filed a defamation case and demanded 4 billion riel ($1 million) in compensation.

The court also ordered Sam Rainsy to pay another 10 million riel ($2,500) as a fine to the state.

Sam Rainsy is also facing a charge of incitement filed by Cambodia's military last month after he called on soldiers on Facebook not to obey any "dictators" if they are ordered to shoot innocent people.

The U.S. announced last month that it will restrict visas for Cambodians "undermining democracy." The State Department said it was a direct response to "anti-democratic actions" by the Cambodian government but did not disclose which individuals would be affected.

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