Cambodia's top court is expected to rule Thursday on the dissolution of the country's main opposition party, with rights groups warning that a guilty verdict would strip the 2018 elections of any credibility.
The government-filed lawsuit against the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is widely seen as premier Hun Sen's final bid to checkmate his competition ahead of next year's national poll.
The self-described strongman, who has held office for 32 years, has already promised a guilty verdict will be delivered on Thursday – a prediction analysts agree is inevitable in a justice system firmly under the premier's thumb.
The allegation against the CNRP – conspiring with foreigners to stage a revolution – could also see more than 100 politicians banned from office for five years.
That would be a crushing blow to an opposition movement that has been battered by legal attacks since it nearly unseated Hun Sen in the last national election in 2013.
More than half of CNRP's 55 lawmakers have fled the country in recent weeks, fearing arrest after their leader Kem Sokha was thrown into a remote border prison on treason charges.
Meanwhile, Hun Sen's government has already passed legal amendments that allow election authorities to redistribute seats or local posts held by a dissolved party.
On the eve of the court hearing US-based Human Rights Watch warned that Cambodia's democracy "faces death", with Hun Sen working to turn the nation into a "de facto one-party state".
The watchdog urged judges to "resist government pressure" to dissolve the CNRP.
"Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law," said HRW's Asia director Brad Adams.
The government boosted security around the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh ahead of Thursday's hearing and ordered police nationwide to watch out for any signs of unrest.
"We won't allow any rallies or protests," Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the ministry of interior, told AFP.
Hun Sen claims to have brought much needed peace and stability to Cambodia, an impoverished country he helped raise from the ashes of civil war and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.
But critics say endemic corruption and rights abuses have flourished under his watch, with elections and other democratic institutions little more than window-dressing to his authoritarian regime. – AFP