Reuters International

By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court on Friday jailed for a year three bodyguards of Prime Minister Hun Sen for attacking two opposition politicians during a march by government supporters, but the opposition decried the punishment as too lenient.

Since the beatings outside parliament last year, tension has risen amid acrimonious exchanges between Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which are eyeing a general election in 2018.

Heng Sokna, a judge at the municipal court in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, suspended three years of the four-year terms handed to the men, taking into account their confessions over the attack, and their cooperation with authorities.

The men, Sot Vanny, Chay Sarit and Mao Hoeun, admitted in court that they belonged to self-styled strongman Hun Sen's bodyguard.

The opposition CNRP was unhappy with the outcome, however.

"This verdict is not acceptable, and our legal team will discuss further whether to appeal," CNRP lawyer Sam Sokong said. "This was a brutal attack."

In a report on the beatings, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused Cambodia of a cover-up and called for a U.N.-assisted independent investigation to identify its planners and perpetrators.

More than two years ahead of the election, the opposition is on the back foot as its top politicians face a battery of legal charges they say are politically motivated.

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 to avoid jail on charges for which he had previously received a royal pardon.

His deputy, Kem Sokha, was cited on Friday for contempt of court after failing to appear on Thursday to hear charges for procurement of prostitution over a leaked recording of purported telephone conversation he had with a woman.

Sokha's lawyer, Sam Sokong, dismissed the charge as baseless, saying his client had reasonable grounds not to appear in court.

The CNRP and a workers union on Friday threatened mass protests and a parliamentary boycott if Sokha is arrested.

Armed police briefly visited the CNRP headquarters on Thursday, in what the U.S. embassy, in a statement, called a "disproportionate and dangerous" show of force, and urged dialogue between the two parties.

Separately, two U.S. lawmakers called for an immediate end to the crackdown on Cambodia's opposition and denounced "the current climate of fear and intimidation".

Hun Sen faced his biggest challenge in three decades of rule at the last election, in 2013. He claimed a narrow victory, but the CNRP accused him of cheating and boycotted parliament for a year.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Simon Webb and Clarence Fernandez)

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