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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski (C), leaves after he paid his respect to the body of Kem Ley, an anti-government figure and the head of grassroots advocacy group "Khmer for Khmer" at a pagoda in Phnom Penh July 19, 2016. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A U.S. rights envoy on Tuesday urged Cambodia's political rivals to return to negotiations amid a "deteriorating situation" after opposition party members and activists have been jailed on charges they say were trumped up by the government.

Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, told reporters that the Cambodian government should ensure judicial fairness as attention turns to local and general elections in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

"Both sides have responsibilities, both sides would need to be willing to compromise to make difficult decisions," Malinowski said, adding that the jailings were directed at critics of the government.

The gap between Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the revamped opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was narrowed in a disputed 2013 election that sparked a year-long parliamentary crisis.

The two sides reached a pact but it broke down in 2015.

"The situation has deteriorated," Malinowski said, urging the government to drop all charges against people "who were defending the rights and freedom of the Cambodian people".

Kem Ley, a prominent activist and frequent critic of Hun Sen, was gunned down in broad daylight at a shop in the capital Phnom Penh on July 10.

Malinowski attended Kem Ley's funeral and called for a credible investigation into his killing.

"The government would benefit from the involvement of independent experts in that investigation," he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the government was ready to return to talks but was not yet willing to discuss active court cases.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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