Ahead of key elections next month, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen is attempting to purge opposition lawmakers from parliament and prosecute a key opposition leader on allegedly distorted charges linking him to the widely despised Khmer Rouge movement, sources say.
A key committee of the National Assembly, the country's lower house of parliament, controlled by Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has approved a measure to dismiss the 29 opposition members from the legislature because their parties have merged into a new group, sources said.
The parliament’s permanent committee, members of whom are all from the CPP, made the decision at a secret meeting in an alleged attempt by Hun Sen to cripple the opposition ahead of the July 28 elections, according to the sources.
The parliamentary panel had ruled that 26 opposition legislators from the former Sam Rainsy Party and three from the former Human Rights Party were no longer MPs because they had quit their old parties under which they contested their seats.
All of them had joined the new Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by exiled opposition chief Sam Rainsy, who has been barred from standing in the elections because of a string of convictions against him which he says were politically motivated.
The decision to sack the legislators could be made public as early as Friday, the sources said. There was no mention on Friday's parliamentary agenda about any prospective voting to remove the opposition lawmakers.
If the decision is endorsed, the opposition members will be dealt a severe blow, as they will lose their salaries which are critical to funding the election campaign and be stripped of their parliamentary immunity from arrest and prosecution.
The opposition lawmakers have declared that any such decision is illegal. The whole National Assembly, including the opposition members, has to meet to endorse it, they said.
Hun Sen's CPP has 90 seats in 123-seat National Assembly. The SRP has 26 seats and the HRP just three.
“If the National Assembly strips their immunity and freezes their salaries, it is against the constitution, as Article 76 states that the full National Assembly has to endorse the decision,” the opposition lawmakers said in a statement.
"If the assembly proceeds only with 94 lawmakers [from the ruling CPP and its coalition partners], it is against the constitution," they said.
Rights groups have accused Hun Sen—the longest serving leader of any Southeast Asian country—of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents. He has ruled Cambodia since 1985.
Also on Friday, the National Assembly will hold a session to vote on a draft law to punish Cambodians who deny that atrocities occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.
The opposition lawmakers have asked the assembly to delay any approval of the draft law, suggesting that it is another move by Hun Sen to destroy the opposition.
“The draft law was pushed by Prime Minister Hun Sen in order to apply pressure on the opposition and [he] has twisted the information,” the statement by the opposition lawmakers said.
None of the 29 opposition members were informed of the parliamentary sitting on Friday.
Speculations are rife that the law is hurriedly being discussed in a bid by Hun Sen to frame charges against Kem Sokha, the CNRP's deputy president.
The Cambodian pro-government media have carried remarks allegedly made by Kem Sokha that the Tuol Sleng prison, also known as S-21, was not run by the Khmer Rouge, but was an invention of the Vietnamese invaders who ousted the regime.
The camp's commander had confessed that S-21 was a Khmer Rouge torture center, and he was found guilty by a U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal.
Kem Sokha's party said his words were "twisted" out of context.
But the purported remarks attributed to Kem Sokha have provoked outrage among survivors of the Khmer Rouge, which has been held responsible for the deaths of up to two million people during its reign of terror between 1975 and 1979.
Under the draft law to be discussed in parliament Friday, those denying that genocide was committed under the Khmer Rouge regime can be sent to prison for up to two years.
Hun Sen was once a Khmer Rouge cadre himself, and his political allies include people linked by experts to Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Meanwhile, CNRP leaders including Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha are meeting in Singapore to discuss the measures that are being taken as well as the elections, according to party members.
They were earlier scheduled to meet in Bangkok, but Sam Rainsy was refused entry to Thailand this week because of concerns he would criticize Hun Sen's government ahead of the elections.
Sam Rainsy, who lives in France to avoid an 11-year prison sentence, was turned away when he wanted to visit Thailand to launch his new autobiography We Didn't Start the Fire: My Struggle for Democracy in Cambodia.
"We have banned Sam Rainsy for using Thailand to launch his book and to attack a friendly country," Thai foreign ministry spokesman Manasvi Srisodapol told Agence France-Presse.
"We do support democratic rule but on the other hand we do not support other people using our country to attack others for political gain," he added.
Reported by Tin Zakariya for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.