Cambodia’s legislature voted to strip an opposition senator in police custody of his immunity Monday, prompting criticism from rights groups, after Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of treason for posting a disputed diplomatic document online relating to the country's border with neighboring Vietnam.
Police arrested Hong Sok Hour of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) early Saturday from the residence of a lawmaker belonging to the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and the senator is now facing charges of forgery and incitement.
On Monday, all 47 ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) senators in the 61-seat upper house of the legislature called for the removal of Hong Sok Hour’s immunity following his arrest, approving the motion. SRP senators boycotted the hearing.
Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang defended Hong Sok Hour’s detention ahead of the hearing based on Article 104 of the constitution, which grants senators broad-based immunity from arrest, except in cases when lawmakers approve it, or if a senator is caught red-handed in a criminal act.
“This was an actual crime, so the police were able to arrest him and then form a report to the Senate,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Mam Bun Neang expressed regret that the SRP refused to join the hearing to strip Hong Sok Hour’s immunity, adding that the party was “afraid to face reality.”
Ny Chakrya, a senior official with local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that authorities had violated procedure by arresting Hong Sok Hour, adding that he should not have been taken into custody before his immunity was stripped.
He called the arrest “politically motivated” and urged the senate to reinstate his immunity, lest it lead to popular unrest.
“I don’t think immunity is important anymore when [the authorities] abuse it again and again,” he said.
“I think lawmakers should not have immunity anymore, because it is useless when they don’t respect it.”
Ny Chakrya urged the opposition and ruling parties to adhere to a “culture of dialogue” in order to resolve the situation and demonstrate that they can work together to fix the nation’s problems.
Hong Sok Hour had posted comments on social media claiming that an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than simply define, the border between the two countries.
He had also posted online two copies of the 36-year-old border agreement with Vietnam containing the article's disputed wording.
During a graduation speech in the capital Phnom Penh last week, Hun Sen accused Hong Sok Hour of posting a “fake” copy of the treaty that could “endanger national security” and called for his arrest, ordering the city’s international airport to block him from leaving the country.
Hong Sok Hour, who holds citizenship in both Cambodia and France, has claimed he did not fake the disputed article, which he found online several years ago, and said he was willing to correct it if it was proven false.
On Sunday, Hong Sok Hour was sent to Prey Sar prison and charged with forging a public document, using a forged public document, and incitement to cause serious unrest for social security—which could carry a combined maximum prison sentence of 17 years, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
SRP president Kong Koam told RFA that Hong Sok Hour had done nothing to threaten the country’s security and dismissed the accusations against him.
“He has never forged any document, and he also didn’t know that he had expressed an opinion based on a fake document,” he said.
“Hong Sok Hour has never incited social insecurity,” he added.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted defense lawyer Choung Choungy as saying he would appeal against the court’s decision to charge the senator Monday, and attempt to secure bail by paying an undisclosed fee.
In an ongoing dispute with the CPP, the CNRP—a merged political grouping that includes the SRP and is led by Sam Rainsy—contends that Vietnam has been encroaching upon Cambodian territory at various spots along the 1,228-kilometer (763-mile) border.
It has also accused the government of ceding land to Vietnam, which invaded and occupied Cambodia in 1979, by using incorrect maps to determine border demarcations.
The border issues led to clashes at the end of June between activists led by CNRP members and Vietnamese villagers as the Cambodians inspected a road that the Vietnamese had built in a disputed area of Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province.
Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, told RFA that no one who engages in peaceful expression should ever be charged with a crime, and said it was “ridiculous” that Hun Sen announced Hong Sok Hour had committed treason and ordered the police to arrest him.
“This is against international law, and too often this Cambodian government resorts to intimidation, threats and arrests against people who say things that they don’t like,” he said.
Adams said that while the portion of the document about the border the senator posted “appears” to be fake, there was no evidence that he was the one who wrote it.
“So Hun Sen is now saying that posting a document on the internet is a crime … and that [means] that many Cambodians can be charged with crimes,” he said, adding that Hun Sen himself could be arrested “because he says many false things that then get posted online by the CPP or by the government.”
“This is turning discussions, debates, conversations of a political nature into crimes and it’s just pushing Cambodia further and further away from the idea of being a democracy and respecting basic human rights and into a country where whatever Hun Sen says is the law.”
Sam Rainsy return
Meanwhile, CNRP president Sam Rainsy returned from a trip to France Sunday and vowed to seek the release of Hong Sok Hour and 14 CNRP members jailed at Prey Sar on “insurrection” charges for their role in an anti-government rally that turned violent in July last year.
After meeting with the 14 party members in prison on Monday, Sam Rainsy said they told him that they “did not want [their release] to be part of a political deal that could affect the nation.”
The CNRP president also said the arrest of Hong Sok Hour was making the nation’s political situation “tense,” but he defended the “culture of dialogue” between the opposition and ruling parties and expressed hope that it could lead to the senator's release and that of the 14 party members, who are serving between seven- and 20-year sentences.
Sam Rainsy told the Phnom Penh Post he plans to convene with Hun Sen to resolve the issue of the detentions, but did not reveal details of when the meeting would take place.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.