Cambodian opposition leader says to return Friday

PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's newly pardoned opposition leader said Saturday he would return from exile on July 19 to join his party's campaign to defeat Prime Minister Hun Sen in upcoming elections.

Sam Rainsy, who lives in France, had faced 11 years in jail after he was convicted in absentia for charges that he contends were politically motivated, including publishing a false map of the border with Vietnam.

The French-educated former banker - who worked with global finance giant Paribas in the 1980s - was pardoned by King Sihamoni on Friday at Hun Sen's request.

"I will arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport on Friday, 19 July, 2013 in the morning at 9:05 on a Thai Airways flight," Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page, in a post that was widely shared and received thousands of "likes".

A spokesman for his Cambodia National Rescue Party, Yim Sovann, confirmed the travel schedule, adding that it would take time to arrange Rainsy's return due to some "issue with his travel document".

Rainsy, who holds joint French and Cambodian citizenship, is travelling on his French passport as his Cambodian passport was revoked by the government after his criminal convictions.

Thousands of opposition supporters are expected to turn out to welcome him at the airport, according to his party.

Rainsy told AFP on Friday he was "very happy" to be able to return to Cambodia, adding that the pardon was "a small victory for democracy" but also warning that "much more remains to be done".

Rainsy, who is seen as the main challenger to strongman Hun Sen, has been removed from the electoral register and as a result is unable to run as a candidate in the July 28 general election unless parliament amends the law.

Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia's longest-serving leaders and has steered the impoverished country from the ashes of civil war and overseen a growing economy through development, tourism, and garment exports.

But his government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists. He is widely expected to win a majority in this month's polls.

In May he said he would try to stay in power for another decade, until he is 74. He had previously vowed to hold office until he reached 90.

While all political parties are free to canvass voters and hold public events, observers say there is little chance of unseating Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP), which won the last two polls by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.