By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The United States has imposed sanctions on the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguards, accusing him of using force to menace opponents for decades, the first member of the leader's inner circle to be blacklisted by Washington.
General Hing Bun Hieng, head of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit (PMBU), was sanctioned for "being the leader of an entity involved in serious human rights abuse", the U.S. Treasury Department said on Tuesday.
"Bun Hieng and the PMBU have been connected to incidents where military force was used to menace gatherings of protesters and the political opposition going back at least to 1997, including an incident where a U.S. citizen received shrapnel wounds," the department said in a statement.
Hing Bun Hieng was not available for comment but an assistant who answered his telephone told Reuters:
"He spends money on building schools, roads and pagodas, so let the United States freeze these funds so students and monks can't have all that, right?"
The sanctions, imposed under a 2012 law known as the Magnitsky Act, block any property or interest in property held by the general within U.S. jurisdiction.
It also prohibits U.S. people from engaging in transactions with Hing Bun Hieng.
Cambodia's Defence Ministry condemned the sanctions as a violation of Cambodia's laws and sovereignty.
"The Ministry of National Defence of the Kingdom of Cambodia expresses regret, dismisses and strongly condemns the U.S. Treasury's rude action," the ministry said.
The sanctioning of a Hun Sen loyalist comes amid increasingly strained relations between the United States and Cambodia. .
In March, Hun Sen accused the United States of lying when it blamed Cambodia's military and other entities for recent political instability and suspended aid to them.
A crackdown by the government and its allies ahead of a July 29 election has targeted some non-governmental groups, independent media and opposition lawmakers.
The government says it is enforcing the law and accuses opponents of conspiring with foreigners to oust it.
Hun Sen's cabinet also criticized the U.S. sanctioning of Hing Bun Hieng, referring in a statement to the U.S. bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
"The United States should also be asked about American soldiers killing millions of Cambodians in the 1970s, which left bombs for people to see until today," it said.
"Isn't this a violation of human rights by the United States?"
(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Michael Perry)