Court ruling expected to dissolve main Cambodian opposition

In this Oct. 23, 2017, photo, people travel past the signboard logos of the opposition Cambodia Rescue Party, CNRP, upper right, and Cambodian People's Party, upper left, placed on the roadside outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A Cambodian opposition leader said Wednesday that he expects his political party to be dissolved in a Supreme Court ruling this week, a move that would further descend the nation into authoritarianism ahead of next year’s general election. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
A man naps near police barricades outside the supreme court as they prepare for Thursday's hearing in the crucial case to dissolve the country's main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nov. 15, 2017. A Cambodian opposition leader says he expects his political party will be dissolved Thursday in a Supreme Court ruling, a further descent into authoritarianism for the Southeast Asian nation ahead of next year's general election. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's embattled opposition braced for a court ruling due Thursday that is widely expected to see the party dissolved in the latest move by authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen to remove threats to his power ahead of elections next year.

The government accuses the Cambodia National Rescue Party of involvement in a plot to topple the government and has asked the judiciary to dissolve it. CNRP officials have denied the charges, saying they are politically motivated.

Since Cambodia's court system is not seen as independent of Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party is assured when the Supreme Court makes its ruling on Thursday, said Son Chhay, whip of the party, the only opposition group to hold seats in parliament.

"We have no hope that the Supreme Court's verdict will be different to what Prime Minister Hun Sen wants," he said. "Therefore, my party is likely to be dissolved."

July's general election will be the first national polls since 2013, when Hun Sen narrowly retained office after the opposition made unexpectedly strong gains.

In his 32 years in power, Hun Sen has mastered how to sideline political opponents. In 1997, he ousted a co-prime minister in a bloody coup. In recent years, he's used Cambodia's pliant judicial system.

To avoid international reprisals, Hun Sen often has struck last-minute political compromises. He allowed former opposition leader Sam Rainsy to contest the 2013 polls. Sam Rainsy now lives in exile and is facing a jail term for a criminal defamation conviction if he returns.

So far, Hun Sen has shown no sign of backing down and in fact appears to be mounting his biggest assault on Cambodian democracy since the coup.

Sam Rainsy resigned from the CNRP in February after Hun Sen vowed to change the laws on political party leadership to keep convicts out of leadership positions. Sam Rainsy said Wednesday in a Facebook post that he was returning to the party, and said the CNRP would remain in the hearts of Cambodians even it were dissolved.

Current CNRP leader Kem Sokha was charged last month with treason for allegedly working with the United States to topple Hun Sen. His daughter Monovithya Kem said about 20 other party lawmakers have since fled the country. She and her sister also fled, fearing arrest after the government accused them of conspiring with the CIA.

The charge against Kem Sokha was based on videos from several years ago that showed him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. He could face up to 30 years in prison.

Hun Sen's government also has targeted civil society and media, shuttering radio stations with programming from U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. The National Democratic Institute, which helped train political parties and election monitors, was kicked out of the country.

Hun Sen also has encouraged opposition lawmakers to defect to his ruling party before Thursday's ruling.

In a speech last week to garment workers, Hun Sen said he was so confident the court would rule against the CNRP that he would offer anyone 100-1 odds if they were willing to bet it would not happen.

"If it is not dissolved, you can come to take money from me," he said.

Ahead of the court ruling, Cambodian police have put up barricades around the Supreme Court to block roads and prevent opposition supporters from protesting.

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