In a significant escalation of Cambodia’s unfolding political crisis, a provisional charge was laid against deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha on Friday, provoking his party to announce a boycott of parliament and threaten mass protests backed by the country’s largest union.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court chief prosecutor Yet Chakriya charged Mr. Sokha with committing a “flagrant” crime by twice ignoring summonses to answer questions about his alleged affair with a hairdresser, according to a letter sent from the court to National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Mr. Sokha’s alleged infidelity, made public through leaked telephone recordings that the ruling CPP claims implicate Mr. Sokha in soliciting prostitution, has led to a series of arrests that rights groups have characterized as a witch hunt for government critics.
On Friday morning, more than 50 CNRP members and supporters gathered outside the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district, where police briefly sought to arrest Mr. Sokha on Thursday before conceding that they had no warrant, according to party spokesman Yim Sovann.
Mr. Sokha presided over a permanent committee meeting at the headquarters on Friday morning and remained there throughout the day.
In the afternoon, CNRP chief whip Son Chhay emerged and told reporters that opposition lawmakers had stationed themselves on the premises in order to prevent further legal abuses—or at least to witness them.
“The political situation is [a] really serious crisis which needs to be taken into consideration by the international community,” he said.
“We never know what can happen in this country. We do not have rule of law. We do not have reliable systems or reliable institutions that can be used to predict what will happen.”
As a lawmaker, Mr. Sokha enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution under the Constitution, except in cases of “in flagrante delicto,” a legal term meaning caught in the act.
The provisional charge laid against Mr. Sokha on Friday invokes Article 86 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which refers to “flagrant” crimes—suggesting that the court intends to apply the exception, as it has done in the past when pursuing opposition lawmakers.
Ly Sophanna, a spokesman for the municipal court’s prosecutors, declined to comment on the charge.
In a statement, the CNRP called the charge a “grave violation of Kem Sokha’s immunity” and threatened to stage large-scale protests if Mr. Sokha is arrested.
“After conducting a thorough discussion, the party’s Permanent Committee thinks that the political situation in Cambodia is getting worse,” the statement said, adding that sub-national party leaders had been authorized to petition the king.
Chea Mony, head of the Free Trade Union, which represents tens of thousands of workers, pledged to back any CNRP-led demonstrations.
“I issued a statement informing all FTU leaders and members to be ready to use their rights to go on strike if Kem Sokha is arrested with immunity,” he said.
In a Facebook post, Thy Sovantha, an influential social media figure and former CNRP supporter-turned- anti-Kem Sokha campaigner—she has sued him for defamation over his alleged comments in one of the leaked recordings—said she would launch a counterprotest.
“I think that Kem Sokha should turn himself in to authorities or to the court that is implementing the procedure in accordance with the law,” she said.
“And if there is a demonstration against the arrest of Kem Sokha, I and other networks and NGOs totaling 12 organizations with roughly 10,000 people will hold a demonstration to support the measure to arrest Kem Sokha.”
CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has been in self-imposed exile since November, when the Phnom Penh court reactivated a long-dormant defamation conviction against him, said the party would also boycott the National Assembly “as long as parliamentary immunity is not respected.”
“The CNRP’s reaction to the current political repression, including our parliament boycott, is intended to show the world that Hun Sen’s Cambodia is now back to square one, meaning a situation similar to the one prevailing before the signing of the 1991 Paris Agreements,” he said in an email.
“This is well illustrated by a de facto one-party system and a communist-style repression.”
Mr. Rainsy said the CNRP would not fall for “obvious traps laid by the CPP with the objective to create more and more violence and tension in order to further derail the election process.”
A National Election Committee official, four senior officers of local rights group Adhoc and an opposition commune chief have been jailed in connection with the accusations against Mr. Sokha.
The arrests have led to weekly “Black Monday” protests calling for their release, which authorities have expressly forbidden.
Additional reporting by David Boyle
© 2016, All rights reserved.