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Cambodia tribunal dismisses election appeal by sole opposition party

FILE PHOTO: Voters look at a voters list during the general election in Phnom Penh

By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) -Cambodia's Constitutional Council on Thursday rejected an appeal by the sole opposition party against its election disqualification, a decision that means the ruling party will run virtually unopposed in July.

The Candlelight Party, a weakened reincarnation of a popular opposition party that was dissolved in 2017, was disqualified from the July 23 election over its registration paperwork, a ban activists dismissed as part of a years-long effort to crush opposition to long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The nine-member council said the National Election Commission's (NEC) disqualification of the party was constitutional, and the tribunal's decision was final.

"On a legal basis, we looked at the facts," the tribunal's deputy secretary-general, Prom Vicheth Akara, told a press conference.

"The NEC decision has complied with the constitution," he said, adding there were 18 parties that had successfully registered.

Hun Sen, 70, one of the world's longest-serving leaders after nearly four decades in charge, has previously said his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) would dominate politics for up to a century.

The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by Candelight being prevented from participating in the election.

"The United States does not plan to send official observers to the July elections, part of an electoral process that many independent Cambodian and international experts assess is neither free nor fair," said spokesperson Matthew Miller.

Just over a year old, Candlelight was the only party that was running directly against the CPP, which has monopolised all levels of politics since the 2017 dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Scores of former CNRP members have been detained or convicted of serious crimes, many in absentia having fled into exile from Hun Sen's crackdowns on critics and political opponents.

"We're very disappointed," Son Chhay, Candlelight's deputy president, said in a text message after the tribunal's decision. He did not elaborate.

The Candlelight Party was disqualified on May 15 for submitting an election registration document that was a photocopy rather than an original.

Human Rights Watch said at the time the government was going to "ludicrous" lengths to ensure it was unopposed in the vote, "showing it has no interest in holding a truly democratic election".

Sam Rainsy, the CNRP's self-exiled co-founder and Hun Sen's oldest rival, last week dismissed what he said would be a "fake and sham" election.

Though the self-styled strongman Hun Sen has been widely credited with maintaining stability in post-war Cambodia and attracting development aid and foreign investment, his critics accuse him of increasing authoritarianism and of undermining democratic institutions.

The government has repeatedly denied that it has a campaign to decimate its opposition and says all action taken has been within the law.

The CPP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the tribunal's decision.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Kanupriya Kapoor and Alistair Bell)