Opposition lawmaker Um Sam An and his lawyers stormed out of court on Monday during the first day of his trial for inciting crime and discrimination, arguing that his legal immunities as an elected parliamentarian prohibited the court from trying him.
Mr. Sam An was arrested in Siem Reap City in April, hours after returning to the country after several months in the U.S., for allegedly violating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s orders against accusing the government of using Vietnamese maps to demarcate the border.
He has since been in provisional detention, with the opposition CNRP describing his detention as illegal—a line that the lawmaker and his lawyers repeated on Monday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
“This hearing is illegal,” Mr. Sam An said in the courtroom before walking out. “I don’t answer the court while I have immunity.”
Judge Heng Sokna said Mr. Sam An’s refusal to respond was his prerogative.
“This is him giving up the right to defend himself,” Judge Sokna said, apparently bemused at the lawmaker and his lawyers’ decision. “This is them giving up their right to defend their defendant.”
Mr. Sam An stands charged with incitement to disturb social security and incitement to discrimination, which are together punishable by up to five years in prison.
After a bruising CNRP campaign against the demarcation of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border last year, which forced the government to concede it had allowed Vietnam to encroach into Cambodia in a number of places, Mr. Hun Sen placed a ban on anyone accusing the government of using illegal Vietnamese maps.
Yet Mr. Sam An, who ostensibly has parliamentary immunity from prosecution, did not heed the prime minister’s warning, making such claims last year in a Facebook post while he was in the U.S. Mr. Hun Sen has argued that his arrest was legal because the post remained online for all to see and the Constitution allows for the arrest of lawmakers caught in the act of committing a crime.
The CNRP has argued that the Constitution still requires a lawmaker’s immunity to be stripped by a two-thirds vote of parliament after they are arrested while committing a crime, but this has been rejected by the ruling CPP. Instead, it has used a simple majority vote to allow the prosecution to continue.
Mr. Sam An’s lawyer, Choung Choungy, on Monday pleaded with the court not to side with the CPP’s interpretation of the law, which has been widely condemned as inventive.
“We are legal people,” Mr. Choungy said. “So please, let’s not be wrong in our interpretations.”
Kuch Kimlong, a deputy prosecutor, told Judge Sokna that the prosecution stood by its case, and cited an investigation into Mr. Sam An’s Facebook posts from 2015 to 2016 to show he had repeatedly made the banned accusations.
Mr. Sam An’s actions show that he has caused “turmoil to society,” Mr. Kimlong said. “The prosecution still keeps the charges and asks the court to judge according to the law.”
Mr. Sam An was returned to detention after the hearing. A verdict will be delivered on October 10, Judge Sokna said.