PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's newly returned opposition leader cannot be a candidate in upcoming polls, election authorities ruled Monday, rejecting his application to stand against strongman Premier Hun Sen.
Sam Rainsy, who was greeted by huge crowds on Friday after his return from France, "did not fulfil the conditions in the process of registering candidates", National Election Committee (NEC) president Im Sousdey said in a letter, in response to Rainsy's application on Sunday to be added to the list.
Rainsy is seen as the main challenger to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for nearly three decades. He has reportedly warned of a backlash if he is barred from standing in the July 28 polls.
The opposition said the ruling was "orchestrated" by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
"The election will not be free and fair because they do not allow the leader of the biggest opposition party to challenge the CPP," opposition spokesman Yim Sovann told AFP.
"It means they are concerned about the popularity of Sam Rainsy," he said, adding it was "up to the people" whether there were protests against the decision.
Until he received a surprise royal pardon this month, Rainsy had faced 11 years in jail if he returned to Cambodia after he was convicted in absentia on charges that he contends were politically motivated.
Since his return home he has hit the campaign trail to spearhead his Cambodia National Rescue Party's (CNRP) efforts to loosen Hun Sen's grip on power.
Election officials had previously suggested that it was unlikely the opposition leader, who was removed from the electoral register late last year, would be able to stand under the current law.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia Friday the French-educated former banker warned that demonstrations might break out if he is not allowed to stand.
"If I can't participate, after the elections all the Cambodian people will protest and the whole international community will condemn the result and regard this as a sham election," Rainsy was quoted as saying.
In a letter to the president of the NEC on Sunday, Rainsy asked to contest in the southern province of Kandal where Hun Sen is also standing as a candidate.
The United Nations' special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, last week urged Cambodia to let Rainsy play a "full part" in politics.
The United States welcomed Cambodia's decision to pardon Rainsy, with the State Department urging Phnom Penh "to allow for his meaningful and unfettered participation in the elections".
Four human rights organisations including Amnesty International on Monday said there was a "disturbing situation of freedom of expression and related rights that has preceded the elections", urging the government to improve the situation.
The organisations called on all parties "to signal clearly that committing, inciting, encouraging or condoning violence or other human rights abuses will not be tolerated in the run-up to, during and after the elections".
The opposition has condemned what it calls political intimidation after a man fired a shot at the party's Phnom Penh headquarters early Saturday. Nobody was hurt.
Rainsy, who fled Cambodia in 2009, was found guilty in his absence of charges including inciting racial discrimination and spreading disinformation.
Despite exile, he has remained active in Cambodian politics and recently joined with former rivals to create the CNRP.
Hun Sen is one of Southeast Asia's longest-serving leaders. His Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won the last two polls by a landslide amid allegations of fraud and election irregularities.
His government is regularly accused of suppressing political freedoms and muzzling activists. In May Hun Sen said he would try to stay in power for another decade.