C laiming that Cambodia is "becoming more and more like a fascist state," opposition leader Sam Rainsy denounced the recent defamation verdict against him and insisted that the Sam Rainsy Party is holding on "with hidden strength" despite his self-imposed exile.
"I was not surprised - I expected such a verdict," Rainsy told the Post in a telephone interview on December 28 from Paris.
"Everything was arranged for such a verdict. The court didn't even hear my argument. It was a foregone conclusion. Of course, the verdict came from politicians in the ruling party who want to get rid of the opposition. It is a political issue, not a judicial one."
Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 22 found Rainsy guilty in absentia of defamation under Article 63 of the 1992 UNTAC Law.
Rainsy, 56, was sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $14,000 for alleging that Prime Minister Hun Sen was behind a 1997 grenade attack on opposition protesters and that Funcinpec and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh accepted bribes to form a coalition government in 2004.
"This verdict has shown clearly that the court is being used as a political tool for the ruling party to crack down on the opposition. The CPP - and I don't need to mention Funcinpec, they do whatever the CPP tells them - perceives me as their most serious challenger and Hun Sen perceives me as his most serious danger," Rainsy said.
"According to my information, the CPP has been very surprised by the way the SRP is holding on. The CPP now realizes that the SRP has hidden strength and that it is a real organization that does not depend on one person."
But Funcinpec spokesman Chea Chanoribo met Rainsy's comments with derision on December 29.
"Nothing he says is true," he said. "Sam Rainsy says everything to promote his own purposes. Don't ask me any more questions about Sam Rainsy. We are too old to hear him speak the same things again and again."
Chanoribo said the International Monetary Fund's decision to grant Cambodia $82 million in debt relief indicated that the two main political parties in the current coalition government have done a good job.
"Maybe that measure was in the pipeline for some time," countered Rainsy. "Had a decision like that been made after the verdict it would send a devastating message to the Cambodian government. It would be like giving a green light, even encouragement, in this drift toward totalitarianism."
Following the verdict, statements were released by the US State Department, the European Union and local and international human rights groups criticizing the court's ruling.
"If Sam Rainsy has evidence to support his accusations he should bring it to the court," Om Yentieng, human rights adviser to the prime minister, said on December 28. "I don't want to think about outside interference into our sovereignty and the independence of our court. I think they want to take control of Cambodia and influence Cambodia's law. "
According to Rainsy, persecuting the SRP would only serve to strengthen the resolve of its members. He said restriction of human rights would be condemned by the Cambodian people and the international community.
"I think that Cambodia is becoming more and more like a fascist state," he said. "The current relationship between the ruling party and the monarchy is reminiscent of the relationship Mussolini entertained with the last king of Italy. The last king of Italy was very weak and he condoned everything Mussolini did."
The last Italian monarch, King Victor Emmanuel III, was forced by dictator Benito Mussolini to accept a Fascist regime to avert civil war.
Rainsy, who told the Post he has begun writing a book about his experiences, expressed confidence that the verdict will soon be seen as meaningless.
"The verdict will become irrelevant in the near future - paving the way for my return," he said. "I think it a very premature conclusion that my political career is over."