Cambodia’s parliament on Monday voted to remove opposition president Sam Rainsy’s lawmaker status and strip him of his immunity following a court order for his arrest on a seven-year-old defamation conviction, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and rights groups who demanded that he be reinstated.
The National Assembly (parliament) standing committee, comprised of seven members from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and six from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), approved the arrest of Sam Rainsy, who was scheduled to return from a trip to South Korea on Monday.
According to a statement released following the standing committee meeting, National Assembly President Heng Samrin subsequently stripped Sam Rainsy of his role as a lawmaker, removing his parliamentary immunity.
“His Excellency Sam Rainsy has fully lost all rights, prerogatives and membership of the National Assembly for the constituency of Kompong Cham province,” the statement said, adding that the order was valid as of the date it was signed and issued.
Eng Chhay Eang, a CNRP lawmaker and member of the standing committee, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he walked out of Monday’s meeting because “it did not adhere to the constitution” in its decision regarding Sam Rainsy. He said he requested the committee drop the arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, but was refused.
He said he also questioned the committee about why Sam Rainsy was previously recognized as a lawmaker by the National Election Committee (NEC)—which oversees the country’s polls—parliament and the royal family, if he was guilty of the defamation charge.
Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy to carry out its 2011 conviction in absentia of the CNRP chief for “public defamation and instigation of discrimination.” The final verdict in the case was delivered in March 2013, when the Appeals Court upheld the sentence.
The charges stemmed from an incident in 2008, when Sam Rainsy alleged that Foreign Minister Hor Namhong had run a prison for the Khmer Rouge regime, and the opposition leader was handed a sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 8 million riels (U.S. $2,000).
Friday’s arrest warrant was issued a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened legal action against Sam Rainsy because of comments he made earlier in the week while in Japan, questioning the CPP’s commitment to holding general elections in 2016 and 2017.
Within hours of the National Assembly standing committee’s decision, Sam Rainsy announced on his Facebook page that he was delaying his return to Cambodia, citing advice from colleagues, officials and several international pro-democracy organizations who expressed concern for his safety.
Eng Chhay Eang said he and other CNRP members issued an urgent request to Sam Rainsy to delay his return after the standing committee decision.
“We think that if he returns tonight as scheduled, there will be violence,” the lawmaker said, adding that he was aware that there were “both lawful and unlawful forces” prepared to initiate confrontations with party supporters when Sam Rainsy arrived.
“Although we did not organize our supporters to meet and welcome him [at the airport], they were ready and prepared—both young and old,” he said. “[But] we were worried that a nightmare [scenario] could occur.”
“We would rather wait and let the situation reduce in tension and for things to happen in a peaceful manner, so we decided to request that he delay his return for a short period of time.”
New committee 'a threat'
Also on Monday, the government announced the creation of a special committee to arrest Sam Rainsy when he returns to Cambodia, with two “working groups” for Phnom Penh and Siem Reap province, where he was scheduled to land later that night.
The committee is chaired by Em Sam An, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, which on Sunday had threatened legal activity against Sam Rainsy supporters who try to prevent authorities from implementing the arrest warrant.
Human rights groups have criticized the decision to create the committee, calling the move a threat to discourage other lawmakers from speaking out against the government.
“This is the first time that they [the government] have established a committee to enforce a court warrant and the arrest of Sam Rainsy according to the virtue of verdict,” Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator for the domestic rights group Licadho, told RFA.
“It is a threat meant to destroy the spirit of other members [of parliament], which is being implemented through the legal system.”
State Department concerns
The U.S. State Department on Monday appealed to Cambodia’s government to drop the arrest warrant against Sam Rainsy, return him to his lawmaker status, and give him back his parliamentary privileges, saying that its actions are tantamount to persecuting the opposition party.
In statement, State Department spokesman Mark Toner called the action “another step backwards for Cambodia’s progress towards a free and democratic society,” along with a recent attack on two opposition lawmakers and CNRP deputy chief Kem Sokha’s removal from his position as vice-president of parliament.
But CPP lawmaker Chheang Von said the government could not accept the “colonial-style announcement” from the U.S.
“Leave Cambodia to lead its own country in the Cambodian way and let us continue to develop,” he said.
Call for reinstatement
Nineteen Cambodian civil society organizations also issued a statement Monday condemning the government’s crackdown on the opposition, the issue of the arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, and the stripping of his position as a lawmaker.
“This development is the latest in a string of arrests, convictions, threats and beatings orchestrated by the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] against the political opposition in recent months,” the statement said. “This crackdown represents a major threat to democracy and fundamental freedoms in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the court’s decision to issue an arrest warrant against Sam Rainsy indicated a new weakness in Cambodia’s judicial system, which it said Hun Sen has frequently manipulated to cling to power.
The organization also urged Cambodia’s donor countries to push the government to drop the warrant and demand Hun Sen end the use of criminal law against opposition politicians.