Cambodia's opposition leader was granted a pardon Friday for offenses that would have put him in prison for 11 years, clearing the way for the self-exiled politician to return home and campaign in the upcoming general election.
A copy of the pardon for Sam Rainsy, signed by King Norodom Sihamoni, was seen by The Associated Press, along with a letter that Prime Minister Hun Sen had sent earlier to the king applying for the pardon.
Hun Sen's letter said the pardon should be granted "In the spirit of national reconciliation, national unity and to make sure the national election process is conducted under the principal of democracy with freedom and pluralism and jointly by all involved parties."
The pardon came after the U.S. and others had said the exclusion of Sam Rainsy from the July 28 vote would call into question the polls' legitimacy. It also came shortly after Sam Rainsy declared he planned to come back before the election, which suggests a deal may have been worked out.
Sam Rainsy has lived abroad since 2009 to avoid prison on charges widely seen as politically motivated.
Hun Sen's Cabinet spokesman Phay Siphan said the pardon had nothing to do with the election or international pressure.
"The prime minister did it for the sake of the country and in the spirit of national reconciliation," he said. "Sam Rainsy is free now; he can come back to Cambodia. We welcome him back."
The pardon would appear to benefit both Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen, long-time bitter rivals, but is not likely to greatly affect the big picture at the polls.
Though Sam Rainsy is seen as the sole Cambodian politician with the charisma and resources to present any real challenge to the well-entrenched prime minister and his Cambodian People's Party, Hun Sen is still expected to win in a landslide and extend his 28-year rule.
Still a return would provide at least a morale boost for Sam Rainsy's Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has been greatly handicapped by having its leader absent.
The opposition was dealt a blow last month when 28 of its lawmakers were expelled from parliament after a committee, run by Hun Sen's party, ruled they had broken the law by running for re-election under the banner of Sam Rainsy's party and not those under which they had won their seats.
They can still run in the upcoming election, but without parliamentary immunity. Immunity from arrest is a great benefit in Cambodia's notoriously dirty elections, and those without it are at risk of being charged with defamation for remarks seen critical of Hun Sen and his government.
For Hun Sen, the move pre-empts some of the criticism that the election is unfair. He has used similar tactics before, pressuring his opponents until they were in disarray, then making conciliatory gestures at the last minute.
Sam Rainsy went into exile after he was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for moving border markers at the frontier with Vietnam, seven for spreading false information about the border with Vietnam and two more for defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong by associating him with the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s.
One of Sam Rainsy's political tactics is to appeal to Cambodian nationalism by speaking out against Vietnam, the country's traditional enemy. Hun Sen enjoys good relations with Hanoi, which helped install him in what was then its proxy regime after it invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1979.