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Cambodian opposition party officials arrested for allegedly encouraging casting of spoiled ballots

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Two senior members of the only major functioning opposition party in Cambodia have been arrested for allegedly teaching voters how to cast a spoiled ballot in this month’s general election, their party and a government spokesperson said Saturday.

They are the first people to be arrested under the country’s recently amended election law. It penalizes politicians who encourage election boycotts in a country where the party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 38 years, is running virtually unopposed.

The Candlelight Party, the only other contender capable of mounting a credible challenge in the July 23 election, was barred on a technicality from contesting the polls by the National Election Committee. Its decision was widely seen as political.

With the party not running, some opponents of the Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party see the use of spoiled ballots as the only way of registering a protest while still showing up to vote.

The amended law, passed by the National Assembly on June 23, discourages boycotts by allowing the election committee to impose a fine of 5 million riels to 20 million riels ($1,200-$4,800) on anyone who encourages people not to register or vote.

It also bans anyone who fails to vote from running in future elections, a measure that would place opposition figures who wish to contest future polls in an awkward position of urging people not to vote while they themselves cast ballots.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Gen. Khieu Sopheak told The Associated Press on Saturday that Bun Khet and Ly Ry, members of the Candlelight Party’s steering committee, were arrested Friday after the authorities obtained information that they incited party supporters to cast a spoiled, or void, ballot in the upcoming polls. He confirmed they were the first two people to be arrested under the new provisions in the election law.

He said the two men in recent weeks had held conversations encouraging the practice, which would violate the new election law. Khieu Sopheak said police had collected evidence and were preparing to send the necessary documents to court so they could be formally charged.

Rong Chhun, a Candlelight Party deputy president, said the arrests were contrary to law because police failed to show an arrest warrant and did not inform them or their families of what crimes they were accused of. He denied they would violate the election law, saying the arrests were politically motivated, and an effort at intimidation to keep the party from voicing critical views.

Hun Sen, 70, is an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic state. He and his party hold all the advantages of incumbency in the election in terms of political organizing, personnel, finances and media influence. About 9.7 million Cambodians are registered to vote for the 125-seat National Assembly, all of whose seats currently are held by the ruling party.

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Peck reported from Bangkok.

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