Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday defended the arrest on Monday of CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An over months-old Facebook posts, arguing that he was not protected by parliamentary immunity because he was technically caught in the act of a crime.
Mr. Sam An was arrested just after midnight on Monday after returning from months in exile in the U.S. and charged on Tuesday morning with “incitement to commit crimes causing turmoil for social security” and “incitement to discrimination” in spite of his immunity.
An order signed by Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Top Chhun Heng ordering Mr. Sam An’s provisional detention at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison says that Mr. Sam An committed the crimes “on April 10 in Cambodia”—the date he returned from the U.S.
Yet officials say the claims against Mr. Sam An relate to Facebook posts he made from the U.S. last year accusing the CPP of using Vietnamese maps for border demarcation and claiming to have the correct maps.
Speaking at an event for disabled soldiers in Siem Reap province yesterday, Mr. Hun Sen sought to explain the discrepancy. He said the social media posts made by Mr. Sam An six months ago were never deleted and remained available, meaning the lawmaker was perpetually committing a crime.
“Don’t say you have immunity and they can’t arrest you, because it was an obvious crime. Now, at this hour, your page still talks about the fake maps,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
The constitutional prohibition on arresting lawmakers without the consent of two-thirds of the National Assembly provides an exception for cases of “in flagrante delicto”—or being caught in the act of a crime—and the prime minister said Mr. Sam An should know that.
“I don’t care that you’re an Assembly member or a senator. It’s an obvious crime, because it is incitement leading to disasters for the country,” he said. “Don’t assert you have immunity when you commit an obvious crime.”
The arrest of Mr. Sam An under the “in flagrante delicto” provision, Mr. Hun Sen added, meant that there was no need for the CPP to find a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to strip him of his immunity from arrest.
Removing the immunity of opposition politicians has been a favorite tactic of the CPP in past mandates. But since 2013 it has not enjoyed the numbers in parliament to pull off the maneuver, holding only 68 of the Assembly’s 123 seats. The CNRP holds the other 55.
“The National Assembly will not be talking about withdrawing his immunity, as he was arrested for an obvious crime. We just have to ask the National Assembly: Do we process this case forward or not?” Mr. Hun Sen said.
The prime minister’s positions are rarely opposed in public by his party, and 63 of its lawmakers in the National Assembly in the afternoon voted with him to allow the case to proceed with Mr. Sam An’s immunity intact.
“I wish to announce publicly that the parliamentary session has approved the authorized ministries to charge, arrest and detain His Excellency Um Sam An from now on,” National Assembly President Heng Samrin said after the vote.
The vote was boycotted by the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is himself living in exile to avoid criminal convictions here, said the decision was in protest of the arrest.
“The CPP wants to justify the detention of Um Sam An. But the latter should not have been arrested in the first place,” Mr. Rainsy said, insisting the CPP must secure a two-thirds majority to strip Mr. Sam An’s immunity.
Yet the detention of an opposition lawmaker without that majority has recent precedent. SRP Senator Hong Sok Hour was jailed in August over a video posted online.
While the CPP had the two-thirds majority in the Senate to strip him of his immunity, it decided not to, claiming the online video meant it was a case of “in flagrante delicto.” Political analysts have said that this broad interpretation of the exception essentially renders parliamentary immunity meaningless.
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay held a press conference at party headquarters in Phnom Penh on Tuesday morning to offer a more limited view of what “in flagrante delicto” should mean.
“As far as I know, an individual parliamentarian can be arrested if he is killing someone—we have to stop him because he will kill more people if we wait for the removal of his immunity,” Mr. Chhay said, also rejecting the notion that Mr. Sam An had committed any crime at all.
“Um Sam An did not do anything against the law because he just gave his opinion in the course of his duties as a parliamentarian, and the authorities are not able to stop this right to give opinions,” he said.
However, Mr. Hun Sen, who was giving his speech in Siem Reap around the same time as Mr. Chhay’s press conference, disagreed. He declared that anyone who repeated Mr. Sam An’s alleged crimes would face the same fate.
“If you talk about fake maps, I will immediately arrest you,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)