Convicted ‘Terrorist’ Pardoned at PM’s Request

King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon to convicted terrorist plotter Sourn Serey Ratha last week, just days before the self-exile was planning to take the final step in turning his dissident group into a bona fide political party.

The king signed the pardon—at Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request —on Thursday, wiping away the seven-year jail term the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed him in absentia in January for inciting a felony, plotting against the government and obstructing elections. The case stemmed from Mr. Serey Ratha’s plans to hand out roses and T-shirts amid the turmoil of the 2013 national election.

The pardon makes no mention of three other men convicted alongside Mr. Serey Ratha for attempting to deliver the shirts, which were print­ed with a message urging people to abstain from voting. They were handed jail terms of between five and six years and are serving their sentences at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.

The king’s signature clears the way for Mr. Serey Ratha to turn his group, the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), into a political party. In a statement issued Wednesday, Mr. Serey Ratha said that the Khmer Power Party would hand the Interior Ministry the 4,000 names and thumbprints needed to register Monday.

From his base in the U.S., Mr. Serey Ratha has lamented a hopelessly flawed electoral system in Cambodia and openly advocated for an Arab Spring-style popular uprising to force Mr. Hun Sen from power, but rejected the use of violence.

Following the 2013 vote, whose disputed results narrowly returned the ruling CPP to power, he attempted to have 1,000 yellow roses handed out to soldiers and police around Phnom Penh, along with printed stickers urging them to “turn your guns against the despot,” a reference to Mr. Hun Sen. Mr. Serey Ratha later explained that he meant to convince the security forces to defend the public from the prime minister, not to attack him.

Despite the lack of evidence, Mr. Hun Sen has publicly branded the KPPM a terrorist organization bent on an armed overthrow of his government, and has accused it of having agents inside the opposition CNRP.

Even so, the Interior Ministry has given the group the green light to register a political party.

On Sunday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan defended Mr. Hun Sen’s request for the pardon of a convicted terrorist as proof that the CPP—which has held on to power for more than 30 years—was committed to a pluralist democracy.

“The government is allowing him to come back to the country to create a political party to join the next election; it does not mean we are allowing him to come back to do terrorism,” he said.

Mr. Eysan insisted that the government had enough proof to get Mr. Serey Ratha convicted on terrorism charges in January, but said it was also confident that he no longer posed a threat.

“We had enough evidence…he did many things while he was in Thailand. Like leaflets against the government, this is terrorism,” he said.

Now, he added, “we are not able to conclude that he is a terrorist unless he commits terrorism again. Now he doesn’t do anything, so how can we say that he poses a danger to the country?”

Rights groups, analysts and election observers said the KPPM never posed a security threat to begin with, and that the government was merely using the group as a bogeyman during the 2013 election and the protests that followed. Now, some say the CPP is using Mr. Serey Ratha again, this time in the hope that he will siphon votes away from the CNRP in the 2017 commune election and 2018 national poll.

Mr. Eysan rejected the idea.

Mr. Serey Ratha, contacted Sunday in Thailand, did the same.

“It’s not a good analysis,” he said. “I think it is a worry from the side of the CNRP.”

If anyone thinks his new party will be able to seriously dent the opposition’s vote count, he added, “they give me a lot of credit.”

Mr. Serey Ratha said he felt “normal” about being pardoned and that the act was the prime minister’s way of acknowledging that he was not a terrorist.

“He called me a terrorist…but cannot find any proof that I am a terrorist,” he said. “I believe Mr. Hun Sen knows well how to perform as a politician, as a fighter. We are fighters, not the enemy.”

Mr. Serey Ratha said his group would submit its party application to the Interior Ministry on Monday as planned, but that he would not return to Cambodia until the party was officially registered and the three men convicted with him in January were also pardoned.

Mr. Eysan said the three would be pardoned “later.”

If and when he does return, Mr. Serey Ratha said, the party’s first order of business would be to reform the National Election Commission.

The CPP and CNRP agreed to an overhaul of the commission last year, deciding to nominate four members each and agree on a ninth by consensus. Mr. Ratha said he wanted all nine members to be politically independent or, failing that, convince the U.N. to administer the next election, as it did in 1993.

Only then, he said, would his party consider participating.

“The first step is to advocate how to have free and fair elections…. The election is the second priority,” he said. “If the people support me, I [will] become the leader of Cambodia.”

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