Cambodian Opposition Leader Flees Country


2005.02.03
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25 July 2003. Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy greets supporters during an electoral campaign. Photo: AFP/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul

PHNOM PENH—Cambodia's opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has fled the country after a vote by government-backed lawmakers to strip him and two other opposition MPs of their parliamentary immunity.

As Sam Rainsy transited through Singapore to Bangkok late Thursday, the authorities moved to arrest one of the other two MPs, Cheam Channy, accusing him of masterminding an armed coup to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Parliamentary privilege canceled

The third MP Chea Poch, who also belongs to the pro-democracy Sam Rainsy Party, had gone into hiding in Phnom Penh, a party spokesman said.

The three were stripped of immunity to prosecution for allegations made in the privileged setting of the country's parliament. The parliament is dominated by Hun Sen's government and its political allies.

Sam Rainsy, who holds French citizenship, has filed a lawsuit accusing Hun Sen of masterminding a 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally that killed at least 16 people and injured a U.S. citizen working for the International Republican Institute.

We see these actions coming at a time of growing intimidation of opposition voices in Cambodia.

Hun Sen, as is common in Cambodian political disputes, has filed a lawsuit of his own against Sam Rainsy for defamation.

"The three men lost their immunity because they violated the rights of others, which is not allowed by the law," Hun Sen told reporters after the vote.

Hard times for the opposition

Rights groups and U.S. officials condemned the move as a setback for democracy in Cambodia, whose fledgling parliamentary system has been blighted by nearly two years of violence, intimidation, and backroom deals.

The three men lost their immunity because they violated the rights of others, which is not allowed by the law.

U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the Bush administration condemned the suspension of the MPs' immunity and noted with concern the subsequent arrest of Cheam Channy.

"We see these actions coming at a time of growing intimidation of opposition voices in Cambodia," Ereli said.

He said the United States calls on the Cambodian government leadership the "to allow all its citizens to peacefully express their political views without fear of retribution of intimidation."

Earlier this week, a controversial trial involving two men accused by the government of murdering prominent union leader Chea Vichea was adjourned indefinitely after defense lawyers failed to show up for the proceedings.

The government has accused the two suspects of murdering Chea Vichea in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Jan. 22 last year. But some say the government is using two innocent men as scapegoats for the crime.

An unidentified gunman shot Chea Vichea several times at close range at a roadside newsstand and escaped on a motorcycle driven by another man.

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