Cambodian election body warns against poll boycott calls

FILE - In this Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, file photo, a woman holds a child as she casts a ballot in Kandal province, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Cambodia's National Election Committee has warned that anyone urging voters to boycott the upcoming general election or otherwise interfere in the polls could face criminal charges and be fined, responding to a boycott call by the head of the country's now-dissolved opposition party. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia's National Election Committee warned Monday that anyone urging voters to boycott the upcoming general election or otherwise interfere in the polls could face criminal charges and be fined, responding to a boycott call by the head of the country's now-dissolved opposition party.

Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled leader of what had been the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said over the weekend that voters should not vote if his party is not allowed to contest the July 29 election.

The party was dissolved in November by a court order after the government filed a complaint alleging it was involved in treasonous activities. All of its lawmakers were tossed out of parliament and party leaders have been subject to legal harassment, with one founder in exile and the other in jail awaiting trial on a treason charge.

"I call on all my Cambodian compatriots who believe in democracy to boycott the 29 July election if the CNRP is not allowed to participate," Sam Rainsy said on his Facebook page. "I also call on national and international observers to refrain from observing an electoral farce with a foregone conclusion."

The moves against the opposition, along with a crackdown on the media that has silenced almost all critical voices inside the country, is seen as an effort by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that it prevails at the polls, after signs of softening support in the last general election in 2013 and local elections last year.

The statement from the National Election Committee took note that "some individuals" had urged voters and observers to boycott the election, having described it as illegitimate.

It said the planned participation of many small parties proved that the polls were legitimate and allowed opposition. Critics have charged that the parties that plan to take part are either small or irrelevant, or creations manipulated by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party.

The statement warned that any people appealing to voters not to turn out for vote or causing any trouble to the election process could be punished with a fine of 5 million riel ($1,250) to 20 million riel ($5,000) along with criminal penalties it did not specify.

Sok Eysan, the spokesman for Hun Sen's ruling party, said the appeal by Sam Rainsy was useless and the voters will go to vote as normal, with at least 10 political parties taking part in the election.

"I have no worry at all in regard to the appeal of Sam Rainsy calling for the Cambodian people to boycott the election, because the people are keen to go to vote and they will show up on election day," he said.

Hun Sen has been in power for three decades, maintaining a framework of democracy while exercising near-total control. His grip seemed shaken in 2013's general election, when the Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's party with 68.

Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid being jailed in one defamation case, and was convicted again in December in connection with a Facebook post in which he accused Hun Sen of offering $1 million to a political operative to assail the opposition.

Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy's successor as opposition leader, was charged with treason for allegedly conspiring with the United States to topple the government, and now faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. He was arrested on the basis of videos from several years ago showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. The opposition party denied the treason allegation, saying it was politically motivated.

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