Cambodian court convicts opposition senator of defamation

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court sentenced an opposition lawmaker in absentia to 18 months in prison on Thursday for suggesting the authorities were involved in the July killing of a popular political analyst who criticized the government.

Judge Ei Thavrak of Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Senator Thak Lany of the Cambodia National Rescue Party guilty of defamation and inciting chaos. Thak Lany has been abroad and did not appear at the trial.

Her conviction is the latest in a series of legal cases against opposition leaders in what is generally seen as an attempt to disrupt their organizing efforts ahead of local elections next June. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has remained abroad after a defamation conviction against him was reinstated last year, and his deputy is taking refuge at party headquarters from legal problems.

Prime Minister Hun Sen filed a lawsuit in August in response to a July speech by Thak Lany to her supporters in northeastern Ratanakkiri province in which she allegedly accused Hun Sen of ordering the murder of political analyst Kem Ley. The senator has said that a recording of her speech was edited to incriminate her.

The fatal shooting of Kem Ley in the middle of the Cambodian capital raised suspicions of a political conspiracy, though police said the accused attacker confessed to shooting him because of an unpaid debt. Tens of thousands of Cambodians marched in his funeral procession.

The judge ordered Thak Lany to pay an 8 million riel ($2,000) fine to the state and pay 100 riel (25 cents) in compensation that Hun Sen had demanded. The verdict also ordered authorities to find Thak Lany so she could be jailed.

Hun Sen filed the same charges against Sam Rainsy for remarks he posted on Facebook linking the authorities to the killing of Kem Ley, but his trial has not yet been scheduled.

Sam Rainsy is the most prominent target of Hun Sen's government, and has been in exile since last November to avoid a jail term on a conviction that he had thought was covered by a royal pardon. There are several other cases pending against him, at least two involving online postings. The government this month banned his re-entry from abroad, making it more difficult for him to fight the charges even if he wishes to return.

Last week, Sam Rainsy was found guilty of defamation for alleging that a senior government official sought to inflate Prime Minister Hun Sen's online popularity by buying "likes" for his Facebook page. The court ordered Sam Rainsy to pay a fine of 10 million riel ($2,500) in addition to 15 million riel ($3,750) in compensation to Sam Soeun, a senior official assigned to oversee Hun Sen's Facebook page.

Deputy party leader Kem Sokha has also been tangled in legal cases related to a scandal involving an alleged mistress.

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