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About 2,000 Cambodian opposition supporters rallied Wednesday to demand election reforms and guarantees their leader Sam Rainsy can return to the kingdom to contest polls this year without arrest.
Demonstrators from the recently-formed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gathered at a park in the capital Phnom Penh holding banners reading "Without Sam Rainsy no free and fair election!".
Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France, faces 11 years jail if he returns after he was jailed in absentia for charges that included publishing a "false map" of the border with Vietnam, claiming the neighbour holds Cambodian territory.
The protesters also urged the National Election Committee (NEC) to amend the voter list amid allegations a recent update saw more than a million names culled from the records.
The opposition accuses the NEC of being a tool of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen. In November, the NEC said Rainsy could not stand in the July polls because of his convictions.
"We will not end our demands until the NEC introduces reforms and amends the voter list so that all Cambodian people can vote freely," Kem Sokha, deputy head of CNRP, told the crowd, warning of further protests.
But Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the NEC, refuted the opposition accusations, calling them "politically-motivated" and adding it was not the duty of the election body to decide whether to allow Rainsy's return.
Hun Sen last week warned that the country risks civil war if the opposition wins polls after Rainsy pledged to convict unnamed members of the government over their alleged roles under the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.
Rainsy has previously branded the prime minister a "coward" for barring him from running in the election and accused the incumbent of using the NEC to block his bid for office -- something the premier has repeatedly denied.
His party has only a slim chance of gaining enough votes to oust Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985 and has vowed to stay in power until he is 90.