Opposition leaders on Sunday called on supporters to consider mass demonstrations after the conviction on Friday of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, while a government spokesman warned that those who attempted to heed the call to action would pay a “very high price.”
Speaking via videolink to some 300 CNRP youth activists from Kandal province at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, opposition leader Sam Rainsy asked supporters if they were ready to take to the streets to demand justice.
“If you consider that it is right, we must arrange mass demonstrations like 2013 and early 2014,” said Mr. Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid jail time.
“Are you ready to join a mass demonstration to demand justice for Khmer people? Do you agree?” he asked, to which the youth activists shouted “Yes!”
In a speech earlier in the morning, Mr. Sokha, who has not been arrested despite being sentenced on Friday to five months in prison for refusing to appear in court, attacked the CPP government before also raising the prospect of mass protests.
“Dictators in the past with the Khmer Rouge until now, those people have the same tendencies as the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Sokha said. “The tragedy has not ended yet. There are serious injustices right now.”
Mr. Sokha called on opposition supporters and other socially active citizens to come together against the country’s courts.
“I…and President Sam Rainsy, as my life and death partner in rescuing the country, have a plan if the court system still provides injustice to all of us,” Mr. Sokha said.
“Land activists, human rights defenders, environmental defenders and opposition officials, we will consider using our rights to hold mass demonstrations nationwide and in Phnom Penh.”
No concrete plans were laid out by either leader. Mr. Sokha declined to speak with reporters at the headquarters and Mr. Rainsy did not reply to an emailed request for comment.
Following the disputed 2013 national election, the opposition led months of protests calling for fresh elections and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation, in what was the largest public show of discontent with the ruling CPP in at least 15 years.
The protests came to an abrupt end in January 2014 when military police shot protesting garment workers, killing at least five, and security guards forcibly cleared Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where the opposition had set up its home base for demonstrations.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said on Sunday that any new attempts by the CNRP to bring supporters to the streets would not be tolerated.
“Absolutely, we do not allow that. It’s not freedom of expression. It is an act against the court and law and order,” he said.
Mr. Siphan said the government would use “any means” to prevent such protests.
“We will launch a complaint to the court for whoever leads that demonstration,” he said. “They are going to pay a very high price.”
Mr. Sokha was convicted despite his constitutional immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker, due to the government’s broad interpretation of a clause that allows for arrest only when a member of parliament is caught in the act of a crime.
Upon failing to show up as a witness in a “prostitution” case against his own alleged mistress, the government argues, Mr. Sokha was caught red-handed.
The CNRP has said the prosecution of Mr. Sokha, as well as that of fellow opposition lawmaker Um Sam An, who has been imprisoned over a Facebook post, violated the Constitution. However, numerous appeals against the case have been dismissed.
After Friday’s verdict was announced, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that it would be enforced, though he declined to say when that might happen.
Human rights groups from around the world slammed the decision.
“Cambodia is in crisis with the government engaging in a campaign of intimidation against peaceful political and civil society activists, using frivolous prosecutions designed to punish, isolate and marginalize any peaceful dissent,” Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s deputy director for South East Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement on Friday.
“Today’s conviction of acting opposition leader Kem Sokha for refusing to appear as a witness is yet another transparent act of political intimidation and the latest development in the ongoing campaign.”