EU suspends aid to Cambodian election commission

FILE - In this June 2, 2017, file photo, opposition party Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha greets his supporters at a rally in Phnom Penh. The European Union said Tuesday it has suspended assistance to Cambodia’s election commission following last month’s dissolution of the country’s main opposition party, and warned that next July’s general election will not be legitimate if the opposition is not allowed to participate. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The European Union said Tuesday it has suspended assistance to Cambodia's election commission following last month's dissolution of the country's main opposition party, and warned that next July's general election will not be legitimate if the opposition is not allowed to participate.

The Supreme Court on Nov. 16 ordered the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only opposition group with seats in parliament, to be dissolved, in the latest move by authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government to remove threats to his power ahead of the vote.

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

The government has accused the party of involvement in a plot to topple it. The opposition staunchly denies the allegations — a position backed by international rights groups and independent analysts who say no credible evidence has emerged to back the claims.

The EU said in a statement that it had provided assistance to the National Election Committee for local elections in June that were viewed as reflecting the will of the people, but that a series of actions taken by authorities since then, including the reallocation of the opposition party's seats to other parties, denied voters their choice. It noted that the CNRP won 43.8 percent of the vote in the local elections.

"The dissolution of the CNRP also means that it will not be able to run in the National Assembly election in 2018," it said. "An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded cannot be seen as legitimate."

On Thursday, the military filed a lawsuit against former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a day after Hun Sen said he should be charged with treason over a social media post.

Sam Rainsy was charged with inciting the military to disobey orders and with insulting military leaders because of a Facebook post in which he called on soldiers not to obey any "dictators" if they are ordered to shoot innocent people. He also mentioned that Egypt's former leader was removed from power by the armed forces.

Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid a two-year prison sentence for a criminal defamation conviction. He has been the target of several lawsuits by Hun Sen and his ruling party.

Kem Sokha, who took over the opposition party earlier of this year, has since been detained on treason charges and is awaiting trial.

The government has also intensified restrictions on civil society groups and independent media, often through the country's pliant courts.

The campaign to neutralize political opponents and silence critics has prompted international condemnation.

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

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