Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Thursday that he will be more able to fight the recent imprisonment of CNRP activists from abroad, while a prominent member of the opposition said the jailings could be a sign of worse things to come before the next elections.
In a decision denounced by human rights groups, 11 opposition activists were found guilty of insurrection on Tuesday and sentenced to between seven and 20 years in prison over a violent brawl between protesters and government security guards near Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in July 2014.
Mr. Rainsy departed for Paris only hours after the decision was handed down, and has since been criticized for appearing to abscond during a political assault on the opposition.
Yet the opposition leader told the Parisian newspaper Liberation in an interview Thursday that he stood by his decision to depart Cambodia.
“My trip to France was planned for a long time. If I had stayed, it would not have changed much. It’s better that I move heaven and earth outside, it’s more effective,” Mr. Rainsy is quoted as saying. “For his part, [CNRP Vice President] Kem Sokha will do what he can within the country.”
“Experience shows that when Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party makes such a decision, it is not by protesting or agitating in the country that you win your case. On the contrary, one must rally by other means, abroad,” Mr. Rainsy said in the interview.
Hong Sok Hour, a Sam Rainsy Party senator who has helped to organize the planned launch of the CNRP’s “Sun TV” television station, said Mr. Rainsy left for France to raise funds for the station’s operations.
“On the one hand, he is in France for Sun TV and on the other hand, he will be doing the same in Boston in the U.S.,” Mr. Sok Hour said. “I think he will be back in two weeks.”
On Wednesday, the CNRP—with Mr. Sokha as its acting president—released a statement condemning the convictions of its activists and saying that the decision to imprison them violated the spirit of the July 22, 2014, political agreement that ushered in the so-called “culture of dialogue.”
In its own statement dated Wednesday, the CPP said the convictions were not political and called on the CNRP to respect the independence of the court system.
“The CPP respects the human rights of all people and the freedom to utilize personal freedom under the rule of law, so Cambodia has no political prisoners but only has politicians who committed faults and were sentenced by law,” it said.
“The CPP appeals to the partner party (the CNRP) and to national and international NGOs, associations and all people to join together to strengthen the rule of law in Cambodia to foster a national society that has development and peace.”
However, Prince Sisowath Thomico, who in 2013 defected from the Funcinpec party to become the only member of the royal family who is openly a CNRP member, said he believed the sentences handed down to the activists were a bad omen.
“I am expecting more events like this to happen before the next commune elections in 2017. There is one reason: If the CPP is not successful in tearing apart the CNRP and dividing the CNRP, they will lose the 2017 commune elections and the national election in 2018,” Prince Thomico said.
He said he believes the charges of “leading an insurrection” hanging over the heads of seven CNRP lawmakers including Mu Sochua, the party’s public affairs director, since the days after the Freedom Park protest have not faded.
“There is still one thing the court has not decided on. It is the case of the seven members of parliament of the CNRP, and Kem Sokha, who has been summoned to the court many times, and I believe in the end they will use the participation of those [lawmakers], and Kem Sokha, to outlaw the CNRP,” he said.
“This is my conviction,” he added, dismissing the parliamentary immunity held by the eight lawmakers. “[The CPP] does not care about the law. They will find a trick anyway.”
Sam Pracheameanith, spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which oversees the country’s courts, declined to comment Thursday on the status of the lawmakers’ immunity from prosecution.
In an interview earlier this year, however, he defended repeated court summons for Ms. Sochua to appear for questioning over “insurrection” charges, saying her immunity was invalid in the case.
“The fact is, the incident occurred before they took office at the National Assembly; that means before they received immunity,” Mr. Pracheameanith said in May.
“Therefore, whenever the court has begun the procedures, there’s nothing to stop it, because the court’s procedure shall be processed until the end.”
In March, the Kandal Provincial Court found CNRP lawmaker Chan Cheng guilty for providing transportation in a September 2011 prison escape, handing him a two-year jail sentence. The prosecutor, Lim Sokuntha, said at the time that the case could proceed despite Mr. Cheng’s immunity.
“We do not need to ask the National Assembly to strip off the immunity unless the case [leads to] conducting an arrest, but the charge and conviction can proceed for a criminal offense, especially flagrant offenses,” he said.
Mr. Cheng remains free, and the case is currently under appeal.
The Constitution says the “accusation, arrest, or detention of an assembly member shall be made only with the permission of the National Assembly or by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly between sessions, except in case of flagrante delicto”—when a criminal is caught in the act.
“In that case, the competent authority shall immediately report to the National Assembly or to the Standing Committee for decision,” the Constitution says.
CPP spokesman Chhim Phalvirun said Thursday that he still believed Mr. Sokha bore the ultimate responsibility for the events that took place at Freedom Park on July 15 last year, only a week before the end of the political crisis.
“At that time, Sam Rainsy was not inside Cambodia and Kem Sokha was the acting president of the CNRP, so the acting president must respond. The fighting against the security guards was insurrection,” Mr. Phalvirun said.
“Kem Sokha also gave via radio an announcement for the people to go and ‘liberate’ Freedom Park, and Mu Sochua also said it via the radio,” Mr. Phalvirun added. “We have the voice recordings of Kem Sokha and Mu Sochua as evidence.”
“To provide justice for Meach Sovannara and the other 10 people, the court could investigate the others,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Michelle Vachon)