Holed up in the CNRP’s headquarters for yet another day, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was still a free man as of late Monday night despite the ruling CPP’s lawmakers meeting in the National Assembly on their own earlier in the day to approve his arrest.
Mr. Sokha has been provisionally charged for twice failing to turn up to court as a witness. He spent the day posting photographs on Facebook from the safety of the CNRP’s offices while some of the party’s lawmakers kept guard outside and others led a motorcade to petition the king to intervene.
In a morning session that was boycotted by the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers, the CPP’s 68 lawmakers utilized a maneuver, which had no precedent prior to the current electoral term, to decide with a simple majority that Mr. Sokha could be arrested despite his immunity from prosecution.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin revealed the result of the single-party vote after the morning session, announcing it was not necessary to lift Mr. Sokha’s immunity.
“The National Assembly has agreed to allow [authorities] to continue to implement the procedures in the case of Kem Sokha, lawmaker for Kompong Cham province, with the receipt of 68 votes of all National Assembly members,” Mr. Samrin said.
In past electoral terms, the CPP regularly relied on two-thirds votes to remove the immunity of opposition lawmakers to sue or jail them—when it had such a majority on its own or could easily secure one through a coalition.
However, since the last election, after it lost that ability, it has instead drawn on an exception in the Constitution to immunity when lawmakers are caught red-handed committing a crime, already jailing an opposition lawmaker and a senator in this manner.
For Mr. Sokha, the CPP contends that his failures to appear for questioning as a witness in a “prostitution” case against his alleged mistress constitutes such a red-handed crime, allowing them to simply “approve” his prosecution.
The CNRP and other observers contend that a two-thirds vote in the Assembly is still required after- the-fact should any such “red-handed” arrest be made, and has accused the CPP of mangling the clause to turn it into a loophole that extinguishes immunity.
In any case, Mr. Sokha has still not been arrested, despite an apparent attempt on Thursday by police, who stopped his vehicle and paid a surprise visit to the CNRP headquarters.
Despite claims by police at the time that they had a warrant, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said on Monday that police had in fact not received an arrest warrant to apprehend the CNRP leader.
“We cannot arrest him because we do not have an arrest warrant yet,” General Sopheak said by telephone. “We cannot say anything or decide anything right now because it is for the courts to consider.”
Ly Sophanna, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which last week issued the provisional charges against Mr. Sokha, declined to comment on the case.
In the afternoon, a few hundred supporters outside the CNRP’s headquarters planned to march to the royal palace—about 5 km away—to deliver petitions to King Norodom Sihamoni asking him to intervene and calm down the political situation.
Over the past few months, the government has arrested a CNRP lawmaker and a commune chief, as well as four human rights officers and a senior elections official. It has also brought a defamation case against a political analyst.
All cases except for the lawmaker are related to the allegations that Mr. Sokha took a young mistress, which emerged in March through audio recording of telephone conversations that were leaked online.
Phnom Penh City Hall had said on Sunday that the CNRP would not be allowed to march to the palace. It also deployed riot police to close down National Road 2 around the CNRP’s headquarters around midday to prevent any movement away from the building.
However, outside the CNRP’s headquarters as the 2 p.m. start time for the march neared, Muth Chantha, a top adviser to Mr. Sokha, said City Hall had in fact advised the CNRP that they would be allowed to take 20 cars to the palace.
“They said no more than 20 cars, but we will see,” he said. “We have to at least try to go through.”
Yet by 2 p.m., traffic police and a line of thin metal barricades were still preventing a line of CNRP lawmakers’ SUVs from leaving the road in front of their office.
“Sorry, excellency, I received orders from the municipal police chief not to allow you to march because there are many people with you,” Cheav Hak, chief of the municipal police’s traffic bureau, told CNRP lawmaker Long Ry at the roadblock.
Negotiations continued until around 2:45 p.m., when the line of SUVs was allowed to approach the barricades and then enter through a gap barely wide enough for drivers to avoid scratching the paintwork on the cars.
After 23 vehicles passed through the gap—and as a growing crowd of CNRP supporters on foot and on motorbikes loitered around the gates shouting insults to the riot police—the officers pulled the gates back in line and closed off the road.
Supporters and others—including journalists—had to drive away from the city and then double back to rejoin the convoy of cars led by Mr. Ry and fellow lawmakers Ho Vann and Yem Ponhearith.
As the convoy neared the Chaktomuk Theater just south of the palace before 4 p.m., a small group of counterprotesters emerged.
The group of about 50 university students led by Srey Chamroeun, who has followed Mr. Sokha around the country demanding that he respond to the claims he took a mistress, repeatedly chanted: “Kem Sokha—Cheap!”
“You’ve all joined together to help Kem Sokha, so you’re cheap too,” they chanted at the convoy, which easily pushed through them and on to the Royal Palace.
In front of the palace, Mr. Ponhearith, the CNRP lawmaker and a party spokesman, handed over the petition to a palace official calling for King Sihamoni to intervene, claiming to have collected the thumbprints from 200,000 people across the country.
“We believe it’s the king who is the guarantor of the Cambodian people’s safety, so he’s the one who can intervene in this issue. We also ask [for the CPP] to stop using the state institutions to pressure the opposition party,” Mr. Ponhearith told reporters afterward.
“We want politics to be stable and society to be stable,” he added before departing.
Back at the CNRP’s offices in the city’s south, Mr. Sokha remained inside behind the barrier of the supporters keeping vigil against another possible visit from police, with the party’s lawmakers now swapping shifts watching over the crowd each night.