Armed police made a surprise visit to the Phnom Penh headquarters of the opposition CNRP on Thursday claiming to have an arrest warrant for deputy party leader Kem Sokha, moments after one of his vehicles was stopped and searched.
Mr. Sokha has ignored multiple court summonses in recent weeks to answer questions over his alleged affair with a hairdresser. The government’s highly public and dogged probe of the purported extramarital relationship is widely seen as politically motivated.
At about 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, a convoy of police vans pulled up to the CNRP’s office building in Meanchey district and more than a dozen officers stepped out of the vehicles with assault rifles drawn.
“Did you come with a warrant? Where is the warrant?” a CNRP security guard asked the police.
“The warrant is with the prosecutor,” one of the officers replied.
The police then walked into the compound, where they spoke briefly with CNRP security chief Long Ry before leaving. Mr. Ry declined to discuss his conversation with the officers.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said authorities had tried to arrest Mr. Sokha a few minutes earlier by pulling over one of his cars on Norodom Boulevard.
“They searched the car to try to arrest him, but they did not find him because only his wife was in the car,” he said. “After searching the car for about 10 minutes, they let the car go.”
Mr. Chhay Eang said the party vice president had presided over a steering committee meeting at the CNRP’s headquarters in the morning but had left by the time police arrived.
Speaking with reporters gathered at the headquarters at about 6 p.m., CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the police had shown up without a warrant.
“When our security asked them to show us the document, they said, ‘We have nothing.’ So we could not let them go inside,” he said. “If they want to arrest him, they can arrest him. But so far we haven’t heard anything about a warrant, if the court has made a decision about it.”
Contacted by telephone on Thursday night, Mr. Sovann said Mr. Sokha was in a “safe place,” and planned to stay there, declining to elaborate.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s prosecutor’s office released a statement on Thursday explaining that Mr. Sokha had committed a crime by failing to appear for a second summons as a witness to a prostitution case related to his alleged affair.
“Prosecutors of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court see that His Excellency Kem Sokha did not come to clarify following the summons issued two times. This is a crime according to Article 538 of the Criminal Code,” the statement said.
The article refers to “refusal to appear” and states that any witness who does not heed a court summons “without proper justification shall be punishable by imprisonment from one month to six months and a fine from one hundred thousand to one million Riels,” or about $25 to $250.
Mr. Sokha is currently the CNRP’s top official in Cambodia. Party president Sam Rainsy has been in self-imposed exile since November, when the court abruptly reactivated a 2011 defamation conviction against him that carries a two-year prison sentence.
Mr. Rainsy said the attempt to arrest his deputy was more “illegal” harassment by the ruling CPP aimed at weakening the opposition ahead of coming elections.
“The CPP-organized judicial harassment against Kem Sokha has been illegal since the very beginning of the love and defamation story that was created with the objective to harm him,” he said in an email.
“It’s just a political act of repression and intimidation as the 2017 commune and 2018 national elections are approaching.”
The Anti-Corruption Unit has been pursuing the allegations of infidelity against Mr. Sokha since they emerged in late February, when telephone conversations purportedly between him and his mistress were first leaked online. Mr. Sokha has refused to address the claims and the party says his immunity as a lawmaker shields him from court questioning and arrest.
Mr. Sokha was due for questioning in the prostitution case on Thursday, but his team of lawyers wrote to the court arguing that the deputy opposition leader could not make it because he was too busy and that prosecutors had no right to order his arrest.
“The role of the prosecutor in criminal proceedings is to press charges or to decide not to process the case. In accordance with the Criminal Procedure Code, the function of the prosecutor is not to conduct an in-depth investigation, and the prosecutor is not entitled to force a witness to appear,” they wrote.
“In the preliminary phase of an investigation, the prosecutor has no right to use public forces to force His Excellency Kem Sokha to appear or bring him in. To bring in a lawmaker amounts to arrest or detention, which seriously violates the Constitution.”
In an interview with Voice of Democracy (VoD) earlier this month, however, ACU Chairman Om Yentieng warned that Mr. Sokha’s parliamentary immunity did not grant him blanket protection.
He said the law allowed the courts to arrest people who failed to respect a second summons and that Mr. Sokha would be “in flagrante delicto”—or caught in the act—of violating the law should he make that mistake. The “in flagrante delicto” provision is the only exception the Constitution allows for the arrest of a lawmaker.
“He could create a bigger case than the first one,” Mr. Yentieng told VoD at the time. “They will not arrest him for prostitution, but they could arrest him for a new case as a red-handed crime.”
The courts have already used the exception to arrest two other opposition lawmakers in the past few months, although the CNRP and legal experts dispute their interpretation.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said on Thursday that it was “deeply concerned” about the government’s decision to send armed security personnel after Mr. Sokha.
“The deployment of paramilitary forces at the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters and armed confrontations with CNRP supporters on May 26 are disproportionate and dangerous steps,” the embassy said in a statement posted to its Facebook page.
“We call on the government to refrain from using unnecessary force and urge the government and CNRP to resume dialogue immediately to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.”