Cambodia’s parliament has passed an amendment to the country’s constitution barring anyone with dual citizenship from holding any top political office, in an apparent move by Prime Minister Hun Sen to prevent a key opposition leader from taking a future government leadership role.

Approved in draft form by Hun Sen’s cabinet on Oct. 8, and passed on Monday by the country’s ruling party-dominated National Assembly, the law prohibits dual citizens from becoming prime minister or president of the National Assembly, Senate, or Constitutional Council.

The law must now go to Cambodia’s Senate for approval.

The move is widely believed to be aimed at targeting Sam Rainsy, acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who holds both Cambodian and French citizenship.

Sam Rainsy, 72, lives in exile in France and was sentenced in absentia in March to 25 years on a charge of attempting to overthrow the government. He has already promised to renounce his French citizenship if elected to high office in Cambodia.

Former CNRP lawmaker Ngam Nheng, who lives in Australia, expressed his opposition to the amended law, describing the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-dominated National Assembly as a political tool for Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years.

“[The law] proves that this parliament, which was born from a fake election, is just a puppet that follows the dictator’s orders,” Ngem Nheng said. “The deputies who represent the nation do not follow the will of the people, but only follow the will of [Hun Sen].”

“This is such a disgrace!” he said.

‘A more important issue’

The National Assembly in an announcement on its website called passage of the amendment a move to ensure Cambodia’s sovereignty and guard against foreign interference in the affairs of the nation, but Heng Chanraksmey—deputy chief of Cambodia’s Young Analysts Group—called the independent functioning of government branches a more important issue.

“Let’s say that [leaders] have only one nationality, but if their institutions do not work independently in accordance with the constitution, there will still be a problem,” he said.

“The three branches—the government, the National Assembly, and the courts—must be separate from each other. So if these institutions are not independent and not strong on their own, I think this will jeopardize the national interest.”

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after arresting its president Kem Sokha over an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The move came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGO’s that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in a June 2018 election and drew U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

Scores of CNRP members and supporters have since been arrested and thrown in jail, awaiting a tortuous legal process made slower by COVID-19 restrictions.

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