PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court on Thursday sentenced an opposition senator to 1-1/2 years in prison, in absentia, over comments she made about Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hun Sen, a self-styled strongman who has ruled with an iron fist for three decades, filed a suit against Senator Thak Lany saying she accused him in a speech of being behind the July murder of government critic Kem Ley.
Thak Lany, who was convicted of defamation and incitement, fled to Sweden before her trial began. Her lawyer denies she made the comments about Hen Sen.
Opposition members say the court ruling is the latest attempt by the judiciary to intimidate government critics ahead of a general election in 2018.
Chhun Bunsan, Thak Lany's husband, said his wife was innocent.
"I don't believe my wife said that. Who in Cambodia would dare say that?" Chhun Bunsan told reporters at the court after the verdict.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Thak Lany's arrest and fined her $2,000. It also ruled that she should pay compensation of $0.025 cent to Hun Sen.
Sam Sokong, Thak Lany's lawyer, said he planned to appeal.
Hun Sen has defeated all challenges to his authority during his tenure, but he faces a young electorate that appears increasingly hungry for change.
In recent months, tension has grown between Hun Sen and an opposition hoping to challenge his grip ahead of the polls.
Several opposition members and some activists have been jailed as part of what they say is a government crackdown.
After Kem Ley, a political commentator and frequent critic of Hun Sen, was murdered in Phnom Penh on July 10, police arrested a suspect who they say killed him over a debt. But activists say the murder was political.
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Clarence Fernandez)