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Cambodian Opposition Lawmaker Returns Home Despite Threat of Prosecution

Opposition lawmaker Chea Poch has returned home to Cambodia after fleeing the country six months ago for fear of arrest on criminal defamation charges. The lawmaker returns to a country whose government has becoming increasingly intolerant of political dissent.

At the airport in Phnom Penh Monday, Chea Poch said he returned to Cambodia to fulfill his duties as a member of parliament. He had spent six months in self-imposed exile in the United States. The lawmaker fled Cambodia in February to avoid arrest after the National Assembly revoked his legislative immunity, allow the court to prosecute him on criminal charges.

Two other members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party also lost their immunity. Party chief Sam Rainsy fled the country, but Cheam Channy was arrested.

Chea Poch spoke briefly with reporters before climbing into a car at the airport. He said he was more worried about Cambodia's impoverished farmers than he was of being prosecuted. The politician says he is prepared to go to court, but is concerned that he will not receive a fair trial.

"I am not confident in the court because the court of Cambodia, as the local and international newspapers state, is the puppet of the government," he said.

Last week, the Phnom Penh Military Court convicted lawmaker Cheam Channy on charges of fraud and creating an illegal army, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. The opposition says he merely led a shadow cabinet to oversee government activities.

The U.S. government has condemned the verdict and urged the court to reexamine the case. Washington also has pressed the National Assembly to immediately restore the lawmakers' immunity.

Human rights activists in Cambodia say Chea Poch is courageous to return because he could face the same treatment as Cheam Channy. They warn that Cambodia's judiciary is heavily influenced by the government

Chea Poch was charged with criminal defamation after he claimed National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh accepted bribes to join the coalition government with the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

Sam Rainsy faces defamation charges for claims of government corruption and for suggesting that Prime Minister Hun Sen had masterminded the assassination of a prominent union activist, a staunch opposition supporter.

A Cambodian military judge said last week the court is considering prosecuting Sam Rainsy for ordering his party to create a secret army. The judge said Cheam Channy's testimony incriminated the opposition leader.

Sam Rainsy has announced he will return to Cambodia in mid-September, despite the threat of prosecution.