Phnom Penh - Three soldiers from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite bodyguard unit were sentenced to one year in prison Friday for beating up two opposition lawmakers, a case a human rights group has called a "blatant cover-up".
The trio of soldiers turned themselves in days after the incident and admitted to attacking the two opposition MPs, Kong Sakphea and Nhoy Chamreoun, after a parliament session in October.
"The court decides... to sentence (the three defendants) to four years in prison each, but they must serve only one year in jail while the remaining sentence is suspended," judge Heng Sokna said at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The assault, which followed a pro-Hun Sen rally, came as the premier clamps down on a resurgent opposition seeking to end his 31-year monopoly on power.
Although it is a rare case of the premier's allies facing jail time, critics say the three men have been targeted to clear suspicions that more senior officials were behind the attack.
The soldiers, Chay Sarith, Mao Hoeun and Suth Vanny, have denied receiving any orders from above and said they did not know the two men were lawmakers.
But Human Rights Watch said in a statement Thursday the attack "had all the hallmarks of an operation carried out by Cambodian state security forces".
"Prosecuting only three people while blocking investigations into the attack's other planners and participants shows a blatant cover-up by the government and courts," said Brad Adams, the Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Rights groups say Hun Sen is using the country's courts to tie up opposition leaders, whose popularity has grown amid growing disillusionment with the endemic corruption, rights abuses and political repression under his watch.
The premier's main rival, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, has been forced to live in self-imposed exile abroad to avoid arrest warrants that he says are politically motivated.
His deputy, Kem Sokha, who remains in the country, was charged Thursday with refusing to appear in court for a case related to an alleged sex scandal.
The lawmaker has not been arrested but armed security officers raided his car and the party's headquarters Thursday, prompting the US Embassy to say it was "deeply concerned".
It called on the government to refrain from using force and "find a peaceful resolution to the crisis".