KING Norodom Sihamoni today signed a pardon for self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, paving the way for the Cambodia National Rescue Party president to return before the July 28 election. In accord with protocol, the request was submitted by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The pardon — which comes on the back of Rainsy's vow to return before the election despite the threat of imprisonment for convictions he says were politically motivated — will end almost four years of exile for the CNRP leader.
“This Royal decree is effective from the date of signing,” a copy of the document obtained by the Post states.
The opposition leader wrote in an email Friday that he is "most grateful to King Norodom Sihamoni" for granting the pardon. But he added: "The mere fact of my return does not create a free and fair election for Cambodia, as promised in the Paris Peace Agreements, and does not advance NEC [National Election Committee] reform."
Rainsy is set to address supporters tonight via the means of public communication that he has almost solely relied on during his self-imposed exile: Skype.
In the meantime, CNRP party spokesman Yim Sovann declared Friday that the pardon was proof the convictions against Rainsy, which totalled more than a decade in jail time and related mainly to a dispute over the border, were baseless to begin with.
Rainsy remains ineligible to contest the election as a candidate, and all his current and former party's elected lawmakers have been stripped of their seats in parliament.
But in an election campaign that has been energised by a sense that the opposition are making some strides forward, his return will likely further boost their efforts to garner public support and recognition.
The decision by Hun Sen also ends a conundrum for the ruling Cambodian People's Party: the prospect of public outcry if Rainsy returned and was thrown in jail during an election campaign period that is facing mounting scrutiny.
Hun Sen has come under increasing international pressure about the legitimacy of the election, culminating in a United States congressional hearing earlier this week in which representatives threatened to cut aid if Rainsy was sidelined from the elections.
In 2006, Hun Sen and Rainsy brokered an agreement so that he could return to contest elections after being stripped of his parliamentary immunity and convicted of defamation, though that was predicated on Rainsy's apologising to the premier.
In response to questions from the Post about whether he had held negotiations with Hun Sen to broker this latest pardon and if there were any terms to an agreement, Rainsy has remained silent.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Friday that the premier had made the decision to request a pardon in the interest of national reconciliation and stability.
The charges against Rainsy came in late 2009 after he uprooted demarcation posts on the Vietnamese border and disseminated maps alleging Cambodia's eastern neighbour had encroached on the Kingdom’s territory.
He was also convicted of defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong for allegations he made that the senior CPP official had headed a Khmer Rouge prison.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and one of the country's leading advocates for national reconciliation, said he believed the solution to the Rainsy dilemma had been “pushed” by growing public political awareness and higher expectations.
“I think they all have been pushed by the public that they have to come to a better policy debate, because as the election comes near, they [politicians] don't see as many people coming out as before, and therefore it creates a pressure to do something differently,” he said.
The public had come to define their own meaning of historical events from Cambodia's fractured past, which had thus ceased to be relevant to them when used by politicians in a political campaign, he said.