A group of parliamentarians from 162 countries is studying a resolution calling on the government of Cambodia to drop a conviction against opposition leader Sam Rainsy and allow him to return to the country to contest national elections in July.
The Committee on Human Rights of Parliamentarians in the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) proposed the resolution on Wednesday.
Sam Rainsy, 63, a former lawmaker, was convicted and ordered jailed in 2009 for the removal of a temporary post demarcating Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
Together with other convictions he said were part of a campaign of political persecution, he faces up to 11 years in prison if he returns to Cambodia from exile in France.
“The information [government officials] provide does not dispel [the IPU’s] long-standing concerns that Mr. Sam Rainsy’s removal of temporary border markers was a political gesture and that, consequently, the courts should never have been seized of the matter in the first place,” the proposed resolution said.
“[The IPU] renews its call on the ruling and opposition parties to do everything possible to work together as a matter of urgency with a view to helping ensure that Mr. Sam Rainsy can stand as a candidate in the elections,” the resolution said.
It expressed regret that, with elections drawing near, it had not been possible for Sam Rainsy, the president of the National Rescue Party (NRP) united opposition coalition, to return to Cambodia and make “a meaningful contribution to free and fair elections.”
It also called on the National Assembly, Cambodia’s parliament, to “promote healthy working relationships” within the legislature, such as consulting all parties for major decisions, ensuring that the rights of the opposition are upheld, and maintaining respect for parliamentary immunity.
In addition to the conviction for removing the border marker, Sam Rainsy was also sentenced for divulging false information by having published a map which reportedly showed a false border with Vietnam and for defaming Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
He has repeatedly pledged to return to Cambodia to lead the NRP—formed from his erstwhile Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and another leading group, the Human Rights Party (HRP)—against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in July’s elections, but the government maintains that he will be imprisoned if he does so.
Cambodian Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service that the IPU’s statement “doesn’t reflect the truth about Cambodia,” adding that it is up to Sam Rainsy to decide whether or not he wants to return to the country.
“Only Sam Rainsy can decide—no one can decide for him. But it seems that he doesn’t want the rule of law and democracy in Cambodia to move forward [by refusing to serve his sentence]. He wants democracy in Cambodia to fail,” he said.
Phay Siphan said Sam Rainsy had refused to soften his criticism of the government and should respect Cambodian law.
“He won’t compromise by performing his duty before justice and the rule of law,” he said, adding that the opposition leader must return to serve his sentence.
The spokesman also stressed that the verdicts against Sam Rainsy “were not politically-motivated.”
“The Cambodian government sees this as a court issue and we can’t put pressure on the court,” he said.
Phay Siphan said that the government has tried to work with Sam Rainsy without resorting to personal attacks.
“Samdech Hun Sen has always coordinated on the issue,” he said, using the prime minister’s honorific title. “He has never criticized Sam Rainsy as a traitor, but Sam Rainsy has repeatedly accused Hun Sen of being a traitor and a Vietnamese puppet.”
Many Cambodians are wary of Vietnam’s influence over their country’s affairs. Sam Rainsy claims the country holds Cambodian territory with the blessing of Hun Sen’s CPP.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.