The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday issued a warrant for the arrest of opposition leader Sam Rainsy over a long-pending defamation case brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
Mr. Namhong sued Mr. Rainsy over a speech he made at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Center in April that year in which he accused the foreign minister of collaborating with the Khmer Rouge at the Boeng Trabek prison camp.
The municipal court in 2011 sentenced Mr. Rainsy to two years in prison and fined him $2,000; in 2013, Mr. Rainsy dropped an appeal against his conviction. According to a copy of the court warrant, Mr. Namhong’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, requested on Friday that the verdict be enforced.
“Thus it is decided: First, to arrest…Sam Rainsy under the power of the final verdict of the Court of Appeal on March 12, 2013. Second, to order all public forces to search for and arrest and bring the convict, Sam Rainsy, to have his sentence implemented at the prison of the Ministry of Interior,” the warrant said.
Although Mr. Rainsy is currently out of the country, government spokesman Phay Siphan said he would be arrested upon his return, which the CNRP president previously said would be on November 16.
“Of course, according to the decision of the court, there will be an arrest,” he said.
As a lawmaker, Mr. Rainsy technically enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution, but Mr. Siphan said he did not think this would prove an impediment to the opposition leader’s arrest.
“The court decided [on this verdict] before he got immunity,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy, who is scheduled to meet with Cambodians living in South Korea over the weekend, did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang questioned why, if the warrant was valid, it was not enforced when Mr. Rainsy first returned to Cambodia in 2013 after nearly four years in self-imposed exile.
“It’s nothing shocking or harmful, but it’s just a funny thing, because when we looked into the arrest warrant, it involves a case back in 2008, so why didn’t they arrest him when Sam Rainsy was getting out of the airplane? It’s funny, because it’s almost the end of the year 2015 and they have just now issued a warrant to arrest Sam Rainsy,” he said.
Mr. Chhay Eang added that it appeared that the CPP’s strategy was to force Mr. Rainsy back into exile and leave the opposition party without a leader in advance of the critical 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.
“They want to show their power,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy was granted a Royal Pardon in July 2013, paving the way for his return to the country. He had fled the country in 2009 to avoid the prospect of spending 11 years in prison on a number of charges related to his campaign against alleged Vietnamese border encroachment. The pardon dealt only with his convictions for this activism.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent attorney and civil rights advocate, said the legality of jailing Mr. Rainsy on an old conviction depended on the specific wording of his 2013 pardon. However, he said that the opposition leader could not legally be arrested unless the National Assembly formally voted to lift his immunity.
“He has immunity right now, so the arrest warrant cannot affect his immunity unless the parliament withdraws his immunity,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
“Right now I am confused too,” he added. “I don’t know, but what I interpret is like this: If he has immunity, it means for everything. But maybe the government or the court sees it differently. They have more power than me to interpret the law.”
Mr. Siphan said that the government did indeed see it differently. He said Mr. Rainsy’s comments at Choeung Ek in 2008 were “insulting” and did not qualify as protected speech under the constitutional article providing legislative immunity.
“Immunity is not involved with this,” he said. “You check with the National Assembly. Immunity protects you in the politics, a political matter, that you have a right to say anything involving [a] political matter, but defamation and insulting are not protected by immunity.”
Mr. Namhong has long shown himself to be deeply sensitive to allegations that he collaborated with the Khmer Rouge at the Boeng Trabek camp. He has filed numerous lawsuits in both Cambodia and France against those repeating the claims, including several journalists and even King Norodom Sihanouk.
Mr. Rainsy’s 2008 speech, which was made at his party’s annual commemoration of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh, attacked the CPP for harboring many former Khmer Rouge members, including Mr. Namhong, whom he accused of serving as a camp chief at Boeng Trabek.
In a U.S. Embassy cable sent shortly after the event, former Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli recounted a meeting with a “bitter” Mr. Namhong who insisted that suing Mr. Rainsy was the only way to restore his honor.
“The aged and increasingly sclerotic Foreign Minister, saying he realized the negative impact of a law suit in the run-up to national elections, requested that the Ambassador speak to Rainsy to seek a compromise short of the lawsuit he said he had reluctantly filed to defend his honor,” the cable said, adding that Mr. Namhong gave the ambassador “an impassioned, almost tearful soliloquy” on his suffering at the prison camp and the injustice of Mr. Rainsy’s claims.
The embassy cable said that although it was clear that Mr. Namhong had been a committee head at Boeng Trabek—where many diplomats and students were sent after being recalled from abroad by the Pol Pot regime—there was not definitive evidence to support Mr. Rainsy’s allegations that the foreign minister had acted as a “kapo” who brutalized other inmates.
Neither a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry nor Mr. Namhong’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, could be reached on Friday to explain why the minister had chosen this moment to ask the court to enforce the verdict.
However, the political detente between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy has crumbled in recent weeks, with the CPP apparently orchestrating mass protests against CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha among soldiers along the border and party-affiliated youth groups in Phnom Penh.
At the latter protest late last month, two CNRP lawmakers were dragged from their cars and beaten bloody by a group of protesters, including three soldiers who have since been arrested for the attack. Days later, Mr. Sokha was ousted from his position as the vice president of the National Assembly by CPP lawmakers—illegally, many observers said.
In a speech on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen lashed out at Mr. Rainsy, repeatedly calling him the “child of traitor” and reminding him that he still had an open court case for alleged property damage in 2014. The premier also warned that a new defamation case could be in the cards for the opposition leader after claims Mr. Rainsy made that the CPP was planning to cancel the upcoming elections.
Although Mr. Hun Sen did not mention the Choeung Ek case, he warned: “You always create chaos, and I would like to clarify that your case [at court] is not yet finished…. Don’t forget that you and Kem Sokha and others are not free and clear yet. Don’t say I’m threatening.”
However, Mr. Siphan insisted that the timing of Friday’s warrant was only a coincidence and had nothing to do with the escalating tension between the party leaders.
“That one depends on the court,” he said. “The court can do it anytime they like. Don’t put the prime minister involved with that one.”
(Additional reporting by Julia Wallace and Colin Meyn)