The Justice Ministry on Thursday rejected the opposition CNRP’s argument for refusing to be questioned by prosecutors over party Vice President Kem Sokha’s sex scandal, calling its claims of unconstitutional behavior “slander.”
The opposition has been supported overwhelmingly by civil society in calling the government’s zealous investigation of the alleged affair a blatant political assault.
On Wednesday, the CNRP said the Phnom Penh Municipal Court had no right to summon Mr. Sokha and two other party lawmakers for questioning in connection with the vice president’s alleged affair with a hairdresser because of the legal immunity guaranteed to all parliamentarians by the Constitution. It said none of the three would be honoring the summonses, which were issued Tuesday.
On Thursday, the Justice Ministry issued a statement of its own, dismissing the opposition’s position.
“The spokesman of the Ministry of Justice seriously regrets that the lawmakers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, who create the laws, have made an interpretation without knowledge of the law or the procedures of prosecutors and the courts,” it said.
“They made false accusations and slander the law enforcement institutions that carry out their work in accordance with the procedures,” it added, calling the CNRP’s stance “an act that pressures the court.”
In its statement, the ministry argued that the Constitution shielded lawmakers from arrest and detention, but not from questioning. Article 80 of the Constitution says lawmakers are protected from prosecution, arrest, police custody and detention. It does not mention questioning by prosecutors.
Contacted on Thursday, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay stood by the party’s position.
“Our statement already clarified that the summoning of lawmakers who have immunity for questioning is illegal. We do not slander; we did it based on Article 80 of the Constitution,” he said.
“We just reminded them that we are lawmakers. We created the laws. We cannot let them use the law like a joke. We want to remind them that what they did was illegal,” he said. “We told them that we cannot appear and let them continue to violate the law.”
Asked about the Justice Ministry’s argument, though, Mr. Chhay softened his stance somewhat, conceding that the court can issue a summons.
“They can summon us, but we have the right to not appear,” he said. “The Constitution does not ban the summons, but the case must be a red-handed felony crime.”
Article 80 makes no distinction between felonies or misdemeanors. It does say that lawmakers may be prosecuted, arrested or detained despite their immunity if the alleged crime is “in flagrante delicto,” or caught in the act.
Rejecting the Justice Ministry’s accusations, Mr. Chhay in turn accused the ministry of interfering with the courts.
“When the Ministry of Justice defends [prosecutors] or accuses us like this, it means the Ministry of Justice interferes in the independence of the courts,” he said.