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FILE PHOTO - Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring


By Prak Chan Thul

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A top Cambodian court rejected an appeal to free opposition leader Kem Sokha on Tuesday saying his release could be a public risk as the threat of dissolution looms over his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Kem Sokha was arrested in September on charges of treason in what his supporters say is a politically-motivated case. It comes amid a crackdown on critics of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who could face the biggest electoral challenge of his political career in a general election next year.

Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party has intensified a crackdown against political opponents, independent media and human rights groups in recent months, forcing the closure of several news outlets.

Lawyers for CNRP leader Kem Sokha, had asked the Supreme Court to rule that his detention was illegal and said that he should be granted parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

"The detention of Kem Sokha is to prevent new crimes and so that the court can guarantee public order," Judge Khim Ponn said after nearly two hours of deliberations.

"The accused will continue to be detained."

The Supreme Court is due to rule on Nov. 16 whether to dissolve the CNRP after the government last month filed a lawsuit asking to dissolve the CNRP on grounds it was involved in a plot to topple the government.

If the opposition is dissolved, rights groups say that will render the 2018 elections undemocratic.

Kem Sokha was not brought to the court hearing on Tuesday.

A handful of journalists, United Nations workers and Swedish Embassy staff attended the hearing where defence lawyers criticised the court's decision not to bring Kem Sokha to his hearing and for not allowing more public participation.

"The hearing seems fake," Hem Socheat, a lawyer for Kem Sokha, told the court.

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. advisors.

Hem Socheat said that Kem Sokha's speech was about fundraising strategies and promoting democracy.

Hun Sen has said his rival was getting help from the United States. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh has rejected any suggestion of interference in politics.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Michael Perry)

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