Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Thursday dismissed claims that a court decision to issue an arrest warrant for Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy was politically motivated and said his lawyer had acted alone in pursuing a defamation case against the opposition chief.
Speaking to foreign diplomats and a representative for the United Nations’ human rights office, Hor Namhong said the warrant “was not triggered by [tensions between] the [ruling] Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP,” despite claims by rights groups and the international community linking it to the situation.
“For both [Prime Minister Hun Sen] and I, we didn’t know what my lawyer did,” he said.
“Therefore, there is no political pressure or interference and it was not a conflict between parties.”
Hor Namhong said one needs only look at transcripts of Sam Rainsy’s past speeches to see why he had landed in legal trouble.
“He has not been held responsible for what he has said, he just says whatever he wants to say and accuses whoever he wants to,” he said.
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.
Sam Rainsy’s conviction stemmed from an incident in 2008, when the opposition leader alleged that Hor Namhong had run a prison for the Khmer Rouge regime. He was handed a sentence of two years in prison and a fine of 8 million riels (U.S. $2,000).
Last week’s arrest warrant was issued a day after 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 elections in 2016 and 2017.
On Monday, a CPP-dominated parliamentary standing committee voted to remove Sam Rainsy’s lawmaker status and strip him of his immunity following the court order for his arrest, drawing condemnation from the U.S. and rights groups who demanded that he be reinstated.
Sam Rainsy delayed his return to Cambodia from South Korea earlier this week citing “safety concerns.” He is currently in the Philippines meeting with international representatives at in the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), according to a message posted to his Facebook account.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang on Thursday maintained that the action against Sam Rainsy was “purely political,” and was negatively affecting the country’s parliament and efforts at electoral reform.
“If the issue was not politically motivated, [Hor Namhong] would have no need to [explain it to] the diplomats, because they are well-versed in Cambodian political developments,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
On Wednesday, Sam Rainsy accused the CPP of launching a “constitutional coup” against him by stripping him of his parliamentary immunity, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Sam Rainsy had earlier been offered a deal by unofficial intermediary Soy Sopheap—a media baron who has negotiated political settlements in the past—that could see him receive a reduced sentence should he return to face the court, the report said.
Alternatively, Soy Sopheap told the Post, Sam Rainsy could publish an open letter of apology to Hor Namhong recognizing Hun Sen’s CPP as the “national liberator from the Khmer Rouge.” The CPP has said it was not aware of any attempts to negotiate a settlement with the CNRP chief.
In a message posted to his Facebook account Wednesday, Sam Rainsy said the court order to arrest him showed that a sweeping victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) over the military-backed ruling party in Myanmar’s Nov. 8 general election “has created panic among the last surviving dictators in our part of the world.”
“But the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the very near future,” he wrote.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.