The inaugural meeting of the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest legal appeals body, was canceled Wednesday after its dean, Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum, apparently boycotted the gathering.
After nearly three hours, Pung Peng Cheng, the most senior member present, told reporters that because the dean himself had called the meeting, no one else could preside over it and it would have to be abandoned.
Also missing from the meeting was Son Sann, a second royal council appointee. Like Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum, he also failed to attend Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony, explaining in a letter to King Norodom Sihanouk that he could not, “on pain of perjury,” take an oath for “an illegal cause.”
Only seven council members are needed for a quorum, but legal provisions require the oldest member to convene the meeting.
Pung Peng Cheng said the seven members had agreed to reconvene Friday and had asked him to preside over the meeting in the absence of a more senior council member. But before that, Pung Peng Cheng said, he wanted to know why the dean had apparently changed his mind.
“I need to meet with Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum to find out what he is thinking,” he said.
Later Wednesday, however, that prospect appeared to dim as a faxed statement bearing Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum’s signature announced he had left the country because of intimidation by government officials.
“On the 29th May, under pressure from very high-ranking government officials who picked me up from my house without telling me their purpose, I signed a letter convening [Wednesday] the first meeting of the Constitutional Council,” said the statement, apparently faxed from Australia.
“But I have since renounced that letter and explained my reasons in my statement of [Tuesday],” it said. “In order to avoid pressure that I am sure would be applied to me to convene and preside over the meeting, I left Cambodia on [Tuesday].”
A statement released that day, apparently before he left, announced his intention to boycott Wednesday’s meeting because three members of the council were appointed by an illegal meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
The council is charged with ruling on the constitutionality of legislation. In addition, it is to act as the final arbiter in any disputes arising from the elections, and as such, is regarded by the UN as essential to free and fair elections.
But opposition figures such as Sam Rainsy also have complained that the government has bulldozed proper procedures in a rush to form the council to satisfy the demands of the international community.
The opposition has also complained the council is over-laden with CPP appointees and cannot be deemed neutral.
Senior government spokesman Svay Sitha on Wednesday cast doubt on Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum’s claim that government officials had pressured him to convene the meeting.
“I don’t think any institution is higher than the Constitutional Council, so I don’t believe anyone from the government would have pressured a member,” he said. “We would be happy to see some hard evidence of his claim.”
Furthermore, Svay Sitha warned, the government could not be held accountable for disruption caused by Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum’s absence. “I hope he will change his mind. If the elections could not be held because the council is not working, the government will not be able to take any responsibility deriving from postponement,” he said.