U.S. concerned at Cambodia crackdown as neighbors' cooperation decried

PHNOM PENH/BANGKOK (Reuters) - The United States on Friday expressed concern over Cambodia’s crackdown on opposition to authoritarian leader Hun Sen, which has seen dozens of activists arrested and opposition leaders abroad prevented from returning.

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Amnesty International, meanwhile, decried cooperation by Malaysia and Thailand to prevent foreign-based Cambodian opposition figures getting home to rally support.

Self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy, who had vowed to return to Cambodia on Saturday to lead demonstrations against one-party rule, said he was prevented on Thursday from checking-in for a flight from Paris to Bangkok.

A day earlier, Malaysia had detained his party’s U.S.-based vice president, Mu Sochua, at an airport before releasing her 24 hours later along with two other Cambodian opposition leaders detained earlier.

At least 48 opposition activists have been arrested in Cambodia this year since Sam Rainsy announced plans to return on Nov. 9 - Cambodia’s independence day - to rally opposition to longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen.

At least 20,000 security personnel will be deployed in Phnom Penh to ensure Independence Day and the annual Water Festival on Sunday and Monday are not disrupted, police said.

The United States was “deeply concerned by the recent expanding series of arrests, harassment, and intimidation of members of the Cambodian political opposition and by efforts to thwart the return to Cambodia of citizens seeking peaceful participation in the political process”, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman said.

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A U.S. State Department spokesman said Washington was also calling on members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to respect obligations under international law by not forcing the return of any individuals who could be at risk of persecution.

Rights groups have accused Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand of detaining and returning critics of neighboring governments, even those with United Nations refugee status.

Hun Sen has described the opposition plans as a coup bid.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved Sam Rainsy’s Cambodian National Rescue Party in 2017, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling party to win all the seats in an election last year. The CNRP’s banned leader at home, Kem Sokha, is under house arrest.

Amnesty International said neighbors should not bow to Hun Sen’s pressure. “Malaysia was right to release Mu Sochua and her two compatriots. But they should never have been detained in the first place,” it said.

Mu Sochua, who remains in Malaysia, vowed the opposition would keep trying to return.

“Still maintaining the same plan: Cambodia by land,” she said in a tweet. “Hun Sen cannot deprive us & the people the right to return. Open the border.”

Writing by Kay Johnson; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson