Immunity Not For Criminals, Assembly President Says

Opposition lawmakers spun an otherwise banal National Assembly session on Tuesday into a fiery debate on parliamentary immunity, with Assembly President Heng Samrin claiming the Constitution only protected those who obeyed the law.

Though the official agenda for Tuesday’s session was discussion of a bill related to the Senate, CNRP parliamentarians Son Chhay and Ngim Nheng instead demanded that the Assembly safeguard the immunity of lawmakers, who are granted constitutional protection from prosecution unless two-thirds of the Assembly votes to strip it from them.

Senior CNRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Son Chhay, lower left, participate in a National Assembly plenary session in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Chhay specifically cited the cases of CNRP lawmakers Um Sam An and Senator Hong Sok Hour, who were both jailed last year over Facebook posts criticizing the government by using what turned out to be a false border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam.

“I won’t say their [immunity] was violated, but they were persecuted,” Mr. Chhay said.

The government claimed the cases were exempt from constitutional immunity because the arrests occurred “in flagrante delicto,” or during the act of the crime—an interpretation that seems to defy the language of the Constitution.

“We should discuss an existing law that does not protect their right to fulfill their duty,” Mr. Nheng said. “If they just express opinions and their immunity is violated…it means their immunity is weakened and the legislative body is not strengthened, not protected.”

“I worry it will become bigger and affect our Constitution,” he added.

Responding to the opposition claims, Mr. Samrin told the plenary session that the immunity only protected those who abided by the law.

“I wish to tell his excellency Ngim Nheng that I will absolutely protect the immunity to any lawmakers who adhere correctly to the law,” Mr. Samrin said. “Any lawmakers who committed the offense—a red-handed crime—I won’t protect you. If you still commit offenses against the criminal law, like red-handed crimes, they will arrest you.”

CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun agreed that the two jailed opposition politicians had gotten what they were due.

“If both men had behaved correctly, this problem wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

“The negative atmosphere that has affected the reputation of Senate and the National Assembly is because of those individuals.”

Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun declined to comment on Mr. Samrin’s interpretation of immunity. But he said that even if parliamentarians were caught red-handed and arrested, the National Assembly still needed to formally strip them of immunity in order for courts to proceed with any cases.

“Immediately after the arrest, they must get approval from the National Assembly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)

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