Cambodia court considers dissolving opposition party
Cambodia's Supreme Court is considering whether to dissolve the country's main opposition party – in a case brought by the governing party of leader Hun Sen.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is accused of plotting to topple the government – charges it denies, and describes as politically motivated.
The judge hearing the case is a member of the ruling party, and is expected to rule in the government's favour.
Rights groups have criticised the case, which comes ahead of elections in 2018.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been seen as a contender to the governing Cambodia People's Party (CPP). It made strong gains against the CPP in 2013's elections, presenting the strongest challenge to the ruling party in more than a decade.
Earlier this year, it made further gains in local elections that were seen as a bellwether for the next national polls in July 2018.
However, a guilty verdict is likely to mean the dissolution of the CNRP, with its politicians banned from office for five years.
Such a decision would leave "no credible political opposition in Cambodia", a diplomat told Reuters.
The government has been accused of cracking down on critics and dissent. In September, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and accused of conspiring with the US to overthrow the government. He was charged with treason.
There was tight security outside the court building in the capital Phnom Penh on Thursday, with Cambodian riot police standing guard.
Many of the capital's main streets were blocked in the morning, leaving the city in even more than the usual gridlock.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had earlier called on CNRP lawmakers to defect to his own party ahead of the ruling. He also said he was sure the party would be dissolved, adding "I dare to bet my life on this happening".
CNRP whip Son Chhay said his party had no trust in the judiciary making an independent decision.
"We have no hope that the Supreme Court's verdict will be different to what Prime Minister Hun Sen wants," he said. "Therefore, my party is likely to be dissolved."
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Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, is one of the longest-serving heads of government in the world.
He has overseen a prolonged period of peace and rapid economic growth in the country but is criticised by groups like Human Rights Watch for being a ruthless leader that uses the courts and security forces to sideline and intimidate political opponents.
In 2015, then CNRP leader Sam Rainsy fled to France to escape arrest for a defamation conviction. He quit the CNRP in February, but said on Wednesday that he would return to politics.
Dozens of CNRP MPs have also left the country ahead of the Supreme Court ruling, fearing arrest.
In recent months, the Hun Sen government has also targeted US-linked groups in Cambodia, including media outlets and NGOs, as part of the crackdown on critics and dissent.
In September, one of Cambodia's last independent newspapers, the Cambodia Daily, was forced to close after the government ordered it to pay a huge tax bill.
The government had previously threatened to shut down media outlets it said jeopardised "stability" in the country.