A longtime ally of Cambodian premier Hun Sen has been charged for alleged links to a drug gang busted 10 years ago, a court said Sunday, as political manoeuvres increase ahead of key elections next year.
Nhek Bun Chhay, a former army commander-in-chief and deputy prime minister, was arrested weeks after rumours surfaced that he had discussed a political tie-up with Hun Sen’s main opposition.
The 59-year-old, whose small Khmer National United Party (KNUP) was a close ally to Hun Sen’s ruling party, had been serving as a government advisor since 2013.
Prosecutors “have decided to charge Nhek Bun Chhay… for conspiring in the production and importation of drugs,” according to a court spokesman.
An inmate arrested in 2007 in a massive drug bust wrote a letter last month alleging Nhek Bun Chhay was linked to the operation, the court said in a statement.
But suspicion over the timing of his legal woes immediately pivoted to a possible political motive.
“I think it’s very clear that these charges are being brought against Nhek Bun Chhay to punish his perceived lack of loyalty to the CPP,” said Sebastian Strangio, an expert on Cambodian politics, in reference to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Nhek Bun Chhay has denied making overtures to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The CNRP is hoping to end Hun Sen’s 32-year rule in polls next summer by drawing on the youth vote in a country tired of repression and rampant corruption.
But analysts say the wily incumbent is working hard to head off any threat to his rule, driving through court cases against his opponents.
Cambodia’s legal system is notoriously open to political influence.