A former Cambodian prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison on Tuesday on embezzlement charges filed by members of the royalist political party he once led.
The action should make it difficult for Ranariddh, a once-influential national figure who is the son of former King Norodom Sihanouk, to stage a political comeback. Ranariddh was co-prime minister of the country from 1993-97, and his supporters alleged the move was politically motivated.
The Funcinpec party, which ousted Ranariddh as president in October 2006, had sued the prince accusing him of allegedly embezzling some US$3.6 million (EUR2.7 million) from the sale of the party's headquarters in August that year.
Judge Sao Meach, of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, found the prince guilty of breach of trust and sentenced him to 18 months in prison.
Muong Arun, Ranariddh's lawyer, dismissed the verdict as unjust. Ranariddh is not in Cambodia, but his exact whereabouts are not clear.
Funcinpec rejected Ranariddh as its leader on Oct. 18, citing his alleged incompetence and frequent absences from the country.
Ranariddh's longtime political rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, had encouraged the party to eject Ranariddh. Funcinpec is the junior partner in Hun Sen's coalition government.
Since his ouster, Ranariddh has formed his own political party named after himself, the Norodom Ranariddh Party.
Tuesday's verdict would prevent Ranariddh from running for public office in Cambodia unless he serves at least two-thirds of his jail term or receives a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni, his half brother.
But Hun Sen, in a speech Saturday, made it clear that he would not back a royal pardon for Ranariddh.
"If you are a royal engaged in politics, you are also equal before the law and (liable) to be put in jail. Let's be clear about this," Hun Sen said, without referring to Ranariddh by name.
Muth Chantha, Ranariddh's party spokesman, said the verdict "is politically motivated to prevent the prince from taking part in future elections."
He said the prince will not appeal the verdict because doing so would amount to recognizing it.
"We have believed all along that there is no justice for him in this case. This is a court that serves interest of the government, not the people," Muth Chantha said.
During the trial Tuesday, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence proving Ranariddh had embezzled the money.
But he said the prince was guilty of intentionally registering the new property under his name, instead of Funcinpec's, therefore "breaching the trust of the party."
He also ordered Ranariddh to pay US$150,000 (EUR114,000) in compensation to the Funcinpec party, reports AP.
Ranariddh is also facing an adultery lawsuit lodged against him by his estranged wife, Norodom Marie Ranariddh. He faces up to a year in prison and fines of up to 1 million riel (US$245; EUR190) if convicted.