US calls for fair elections in Cambodia

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By MATTHEW PENNINGTON, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States is urging Cambodia to allow diverse participation in next year's general elections and release women who were imprisoned last month for protesting a property development.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, in talks Tuesday, discussed the importance of "appropriate participation across the political spectrum" in the 2013 elections.

But Nuland said Wednesday that it was "an issue for the Cambodians" whether opposition leader Sam Rainsy is allowed to take part in the vote. Rainsy lives in exile in France following 2010 convictions in Cambodia that he claims were politically motivated.

This year, Cambodia is the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional grouping that Washington wants to engage more actively as the Obama administration steps up the U.S. diplomatic and security presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Cambodian's prime minister, Hun Sen, has dominated the Southeast Asian nation for nearly three decades. Rights groups accuse him of squelching dissent and intimidating political opponents.

Last month, 13 women were sentenced by a Cambodian court to 2½ years in prison for protesting their eviction from the land where their homes once stood. The case was seen as emblematic of a broader problem of forcible evictions of poor Cambodians to make way for property development in its fast-growing economy.

Their houses were demolished in 2010 to make way for a Chinese company's development of a hotel, office buildings and luxury houses in Phnom Penh's Boueng Kak lake area. The women were found guilty of aggravated rebellion and illegal occupation after attempting to reconstruct their homes. Four have reportedly begun a hunger strike in prison.

Nuland said Clinton urged Cambodia grant the detainees due process, and said their release "would be a sign of support for freedom of expression."

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