Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong on Monday once again defended recent legal actions and political moves against the opposition CNRP, and admitted to personally pushing for the enforcement of a years-old defamation and incitement sentence against CNRP President Sam Rainsy.
Speaking with reporters after his first meeting with the new U.S. ambassador, William Heidt, the minister said he told the envoy that there was nothing political about Mr. Rainsy’s 2011 conviction over claims he made that Mr. Namhong had been a Khmer Rouge collaborator.
“I told the ambassador that Cambodia is a state of law. Cambodia has to respect all laws, and the government cannot intervene in the judicial system,” he said.
Only moments later, however, Mr. Namhong admitted to having recently asked the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to enforce its two-year prison sentence—which until last month had gone ignored—after Mr. Rainsy refused to apologize to him.
“His Excellency did not respond and asked me to apologize for the people who died during the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said. “Those were rude words, so I have to implement the verdict.”
Last month, Mr. Namhong insisted that he had nothing to do with the sudden issuance of an arrest warrant for Mr. Rainsy, and did not even know his lawyer had asked for the warrant to be issued until after the fact.
Mr. Rainsy has since been removed from parliament and stripped of the legal immunity that came with his status as a lawmaker by a majority vote of the CPP-dominated National Assembly’s standing committee. He is now abroad in self-imposed exile. His deputy, Kem Sokha, was stripped of his position as National Assembly vice president a few weeks earlier. Just days before that, two CNRP lawmakers were severely beaten while leaving the Assembly at the end of a CPP-organized protest against Mr. Sokha.
Mr. Namhong said on Monday that he told the U.S. ambassador that Mr. Sokha’s removal was entirely justified because he had used his position to “slander” the government, and assured Mr. Heidt that the government would take steps to prevent any more attacks on lawmakers.
“His Excellency the ambassador was convinced by what I explained,” he added.
Leaving the meeting, Mr. Heidt said he had a “friendly” talk with the minister but declined to go into any detail. The U.S. Embassy said the pair discussed the political situation, but would not elaborate.
Last month, the U.S. State Department expressed “grave concern” over the recent treatment of the opposition and said it recalled “a more authoritarian period in Cambodia’s recent past.” On Thursday, 16 U.S. lawmakers sent Prime Minister Hun Sen a letter urging him to revoke Mr. Rainsy’s arrest warrant.
Contacted after Monday’s meeting, Foreign Affairs spokesman Chum Sounry said there was no contradiction in Mr. Namhong’s statements regarding his role in the enforcement of the 2011 verdict against Mr. Rainsy. He said the minister did not ask for the arrest warrant to be issued, only that it be enforced once it was issued.
Mr. Namhong, he said, made the request after Mr. Rainsy had refused to apologize, days after the warrant had been issued.
“After that,” Mr. Sounry said, “[Mr. Namhong] said he asked the court to carry out the arrest warrant.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)