A Cambodian court on Tuesday officially charged opposition lawmaker Um Sam An with two criminal offenses over his accusations that the government conceded land to Vietnam along its border, his lawyer said, in a case widely seen as another instance of the ruling party’s persecution of the political opposition.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court placed Um Sam An, a lawmaker from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), under pretrial lockup for incitement to commit a felony and incitement to cause discrimination, attorney Chhoung Chou Ngy said. Authorities then took him away to the country’s notorious Prey Sar prison.
The charges arose from Um Sam An’s accusations that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had failed to stop land encroachment by Vietnam and used improper maps to demarcate the border between the two former colonies of France.
He faces up to five years in prison under the two incitement charges, the first of which carries a penalty of six months to two years in jail plus a fine. The second charge is punishable by one to three years in jail and a fine of 2 million-6 million riel (U.S. $500-U.S. $1,500), Chhoung Chou Ngy said.
The attorney told RFA’s Khmer Service that the court has violated the constitution by sentencing his client to prison.
“This is contrary to the constitution’s Article 80 because he still has immunity,” he said, referring to the provision in the charter that grants National Assembly deputies immunity from arrest and prosecution.
“It means that the court has arrested and detained a lawmaker who has immunity,” he said.
In the meantime, Prime Minister Hun Sen has renewed his threat to arrest anyone, including lawmakers, who discusses Cambodia-Vietnam border issues.
“Those who dare to say the border map is fake will be arrested whoever they are,” he said, adding that Um Sam An’s arrest and detention resulted from accusatory posts about the issue that he made on his Facebook page.
In accusing the government of using fake border maps, Um Sam An posted what he said were the valid French colonial maps of Cambodia’s border with Vietnam, which the constitution mandates are the only ones that can be used for border demarcation.
Parliament’s extraordinary session
Also on Tuesday, the National Assembly held an extraordinary session to determine whether the court can continue its investigation of Um Sam An.
Chheang Von, a lawyer from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), told reporters after the meeting that parliament had approved a motion to let the court continue its review of Um Sam An’s case, because he had committed an obvious offense via social media.
He also said Um Sam An’s comments had provoked conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam and confused the public.
The CNRP boycotted the session and held a separate press conference to denounce parliament’s move.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay told reporters that the party’s deputies boycotted the session so that they could avoid violating the constitution.
“We don’t want to breach any laws,” he said. “We want the National Assembly to be independent.”
With reference to Article 80 of the constitution, Son Chhay said a lawmaker’s immunity can be stripped only if the National Assembly has a two-thirds majority vote, although the CPP does not currently have such a supermajority.
Civil society responds
In response to the court’s action against Um Sam An, a group of 13 civil society organizations said Monday that his arrest flouts the constitutional guarantee of parliamentary immunity.
“Not only does the arrest plainly undermine the constitutional guarantee of immunity for members of the National Assembly, but it also signifies the shrinking democratic space and intolerance of political pluralism in Cambodia,” the groups said in a statement.
“The very reason for the constitutional immunity for elected politicians is to ensure that they can freely discuss alternative views and represent the interests of those who elected them by ensuring those who exercise public power are held accountable,” the statement said.
Military police apprehended Um Sam An on Monday in northwestern Cambodia’s Siem Reap province shortly after he returned from an overseas trip.
The Ministry of Interior said he was arrested because of his comments about the government selling land to Vietnam as well as accusations that the Cambodian government used fake maps to demarcate its border.
Despite the constitution’s guarantee of parliamentary immunity, justice officials have argued that the lawmaker’s arrest is legal because it falls under the exception of “in flagrante delicto” that allows for individuals to be prosecuted if caught red-handed committing a crime.
Opposition party Senator Hong Sok Hour also faces trial on several charges for making similar criticisms.
Police arrested him last August for posting comments on social media that claimed an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dissolve, rather than define, the border between the two countries.
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Tha Thai for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.