A court in Cambodia’s capital issued an arrest warrant Friday for opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy on charges stemming from a seven-year-old defamation case, prompting criticism that the decision was politically motivated.
A spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) told RFA’s Khmer Service that Sam Rainsy, who is traveling in Japan and South Korea, faces immediate arrest on his return to Cambodia because his immunity as a lawmaker had already been stripped as a result of an earlier conviction on the charges.
Friday’s arrest warrant, a copy of which was posted to Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page, was issued by Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor’s representative Seu Vanny to carry out the court’s 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).
Sam Rainsy was granted a royal pardon in 2013, allowing him to return to Cambodia from four years of self-imposed exile to contest the country’s general elections in July that year.
However, the pardon only specifically addressed another conviction on charges stemming from Sam Rainsy’s removal of demarcation posts along Cambodia’s border with Vietnam in 2009. Sam Rainsy was allowed to contest the polls and was elected as a National Assembly (parliament) lawmaker.
Friday’s arrest warrant came a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened legal action against Sam Rainsy over comments he recently made in Tokyo, questioning the CPP’s commitment to holding general elections in 2016 and 2017.
Loss of immunity
Senior CPP member and National Assembly spokesman Chheang Von told RFA Friday that Sam Rainsy could be arrested on his return to Cambodia as the 2013 Appeal Court verdict had stripped him of his immunity as a lawmaker.
According to Cambodia’s constitution, parliamentary immunity can only be lifted with a two-thirds majority vote by a full session of the National Assembly, except when caught in the act of committing a crime, or in flagrante delicto.
However, Chheang Von invoked Article 14 of the Law on Parliamentarians, which states that “parliamentarians whose final verdict or final warrant decides that he or she is guilty shall lose completely his or her right, privilege and membership as a Member of Parliament.”
“When a lawmaker is convicted to a prison term and the verdict is already in effect, the court doesn't need to request [the Assembly] strip immunity,” he said.
Chheang Von said that Hor Namhong’s lawyer had simply revisited the defamation case against Sam Rainsy and denied the court’s move had anything to do with Hun Sen’s threat of legal action on Thursday.
“The Assembly doesn't need to strip his immunity—this is a court case,” he said. “He already lost his immunity.”
CNRP steering committee vice president Eng Chhay Eang dismissed the warrant against Sam Rainsy, and questioned why the opposition leader had been allowed to live in Cambodia for the past two years without being arrested if it was valid.
“[Sam Rainsy] returned to Cambodia on July 9, 2013—months after the warrant came into effect [following the final verdict],” he told RFA.
“So why didn’t they arrest Sam Rainsy at the time he returned?”
Ny Chakrya, a senior official with local rights group Adhoc, said that Sam Rainsy had received parliamentary immunity in 2014 when he assumed office as a lawmaker—long after the final verdict was delivered on his conviction.
“If this [current warrant is for a conviction which] took place before the year 2014, it would become null and void on the same day the National Election Commission [which oversee the country’s polls] recognized Sam Rainsy as a member of parliament,” he said.
“Based on the electoral laws, all [lawmakers] are free of any criminal charges.”
Other sources expressed frustration over the decision to arrest Sam Rainsy, suggesting the court had been pressured by to act by “politicians who were unwilling to use peaceful methods to solve disputes,” and that the move would damage the stability of the country.
In August, the National Assembly voted to strip opposition senator Hong Sok Hour of his immunity, prompting criticism from rights groups, after Hun Sen accused him of treason for posting a disputed diplomatic document online relating to the Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
The lawmaker had been arrested before his immunity was removed and the CPP said at the time that the National Assembly had examined a report prepared by police and the municipal court—a necessary step in invoking the in flagrante delicto clause.
Last month, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court indefinitely postponed Hong Sok Hour’s trial on charges of “forgery and incitement,” prompting rights groups and the lawmaker’s wife to call the move—and his subsequent return to prison without bail—a violation of his right to fair and timely proceedings.
Reported by Ung Sereyvuth, Pisey Sem and Vutha Thy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.