Opposition politicians submitted a petition signed by 170,000 supporters seeking Royal intervention yesterday after members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) voted to allow the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to continue its prosecution of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha.
All 68 members of the CPP, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, voted to allow continued legal action against Mr. Sokha, the CNRP’s acting president. Mr. Sokha was summoned to court for questioning twice in relation to a sex scandal that has already managed to ensnare five civil society workers, but has ignored each summons.
All 55 members of the CNRP boycotted the vote because they believe Mr. Sokha’s parliamentary immunity is being ignored, labelling the move a political witch-hunt.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin announced yesterday morning that the CPP’s votes will give authorities the right to arrest Mr. Sokha.
During a press conference after the parliamentary session, National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long defended the decision, claiming the court’s recent procedures involving Mr. Sokha had neither violated the constitution nor any law because Mr. Sokha’s refusal to appear in court was a crime.
Mr. Peng Long added that any politician found to have committed a crime would be removed from his position.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile in France to avoid years-old defamation charges that many in the
international community say are political in nature, slammed the vote, saying the CPP was “abusing” the constitution by allowing the court to take action against a politician with parliamentary immunity.
At the CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district yesterday, while waiting for petitions in support of officials arrested in connection with the alleged sex scandal to arrive from the provinces, a number of opposition members gave speeches highlighting the challenges and issues they now face.
Many human rights advocates and opposition members believe the charges against Mr. Sokha are, like Mr. Rainsy’s, politically motivated. The CNRP planned to march en-masse with their petition to the Royal Palace.
But government officials warned the opposition party that “action will be taken” against groups found “affecting security and public order.” CNRP supporters said they strongly opposed arresting Mr. Sokha and hoped the disagreement did not lead to violence.
At 1:30 yesterday afternoon, dozens of police were deployed near the CNRP’s headquarters, blocking roads and attempting to stop a rally of opposition supporters on their way to deliver petitions to the King’s cabinet. As the tension among supporters rose, CNRP members negotiated with police, resulting in 23 cars being allowed to pass through their barricades and the petition being delivered.
A counter protest made up of about 100 people led by Srey Chamroeun, a university student and outspoken critic of Mr. Sokha over the past months, gathered less than 100 meters from the Royal Palace. The group, loudly criticizing the CNRP, was met by the opposition rally on their way to the Palace at about 4pm, but no confrontation resulted and the petition was submitted.
In the petition, the members of the opposition and their supporters demanded the release of politicians and civil society officials detained for political gain, the end of state institutions being used to threaten and pressure civil society and the opposition party and the end of the judicial abuse of legislative power, especially its violation of parliamentary immunity.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said that although the petition had been submitted, the opposition will continue to hold peaceful demonstrations until the political tension in the country is reduced and Mr. Sokha’s parliamentary immunity respected.
“We hope our King can intervene. CNRP members cannot continue working under the threat of the judiciary, which is now controlled by the ruling party. We are open for negotiations and at the same time, peaceful gatherings will continue to protest Mr. Sokha’s arrest,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
US Congressman Allen Lowenthal, co-chair of the Cambodia Caucus in the US House of Representatives, released a statement condemning the actions of the CPP.
“Upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018 will not be considered fair and free unless the current climate of fear and intimidation facing the political opposition in Cambodia comes to an end. We urge the Cambodian government to immediately cease all harassment of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and foster an environment where democracy can thrive and flourish,” Mr. Lowenthal said.
A man prays in front of a road block set up by police to stop protesters from marching to the National Assembly yesterday. KT/Mai Vireak
Members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party deliver a petition to the National Assembly. KT/Mai Vireak