The Kandal Provincial Court sentenced an opposition CNRP lawmaker, a lawyer and a CNRP district councilor to between 18 months and two years in prison on Friday, but lawyers for the defendants said they did not expect any arrests unless the decision is upheld on appeal.
Chan Cheng, a CNRP lawmaker representing Kandal province, and Choung Choungy, an attorney who often represents opposition officials, were sentenced to two years in jail for providing transportation in what the court has deemed a prison escape by Meas Peng, a CNRP councilor in Kandal’s Kien Svay district who was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday.
In September 2011, Mr. Peng was briefly detained for allegedly inciting villagers over a land dispute, but claimed that he was arrested without a warrant. Mr. Cheng and Mr. Choungy met the district councilor at the Kandal provincial prison on the day he was arrested and—with no resistance from guards—successfully negotiated his release and drove him away.
Lim Sokuntha, chief prosecutor at the Kandal Provincial Court, said on Friday that all three were found guilty of involvement of a prison escape and handed jail sentences and fines, but that the penalties would not be imposed until the verdict “comes into force” and declined to say when that would happen.
“Presiding Judge Kem Meng sentenced Chan Cheng to two years in prison after he was found guilty of providing transportation for a detainee to escape from prison, and he is ordered to pay a fine of 3 million riel (about $745),” Mr. Sokuntha said, adding that Mr. Choungy was given the same sentence and fine.
None of the defendants were present at the hearing Friday, and Sok Sam Oeun, the lawyer representing Mr. Choungy, said he would request a retrial before moving ahead with filing an appeal against the decision.
Mr. Sam Oeun said lawyers were given less than a week’s notice of the hearing and did not have enough time to prepare. He said that Judge Meng’s decision was based solely on a statement from the investigating judge and did not amount to a fair trial.
“So the problem is that the trial is done in absentia, and based on the statement made by the investigating judge only, so for me I think it is not fair enough,” he said. “One, the judge did not hear what the suspects had to say. And the second one, all the accused…lost their right to examine the witness.”
Mr. Sam Ouen said he would submit a request for a retrial to the provincial court next week and, if it is rejected, file an appeal within 30 days.
Mr. Cheng, the lawmaker, said the case was “politically motivated,” referring further questions to his lawyer, Sam Sokong.
Mr. Sokong said the decision to convict a lawmaker was unconstitutional due to the parliamentary immunity granted to members of the National Assembly.
“The conviction and the sentence are in violation of Article 80 of the Constitution because my client has immunity,” Mr. Sokong said.
However, Mr. Sokuntha, the prosecutor, said there was no need to take away Mr. Cheng’s immunity prior to prosecution.
“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.
The Constitution states that 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.
Prum Nhien Vichet, a member and spokesman for the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, said it would be premature to weigh in on the legality of Friday’s decision by the Kandal court.
“Because it is required of us to have the case file to study every single word before issuing an interpretation, and for this case we do not have the details in our hand,” he said.
Mr. Choungy, the convicted attorney, said the court’s decision was blatant intimidation.
“They did this because they wanted to dissuade me, since I dare to criticize corrupt officials; they particularly wanted to dissuade me from defending the opposition party,” he said. “I will definitely appeal because the verdict is not acceptable.”
CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who has in recent months promoted a new “culture of dialogue” between the opposition party and the ruling CPP, said the cases were political in nature, and therefore would be resolved once the parties finalize reforms to the electoral system.
“I think these cases are related to politics, and more precisely to recent politics,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“We expect the political climate to dramatically improve by the time everything is settled — everything related to the next election. And then as a consequence, the political atmosphere will be much better, and in such a better political atmosphere, all the remaining problems can be settled,” he said.
On Thursday, deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha said that two new election laws will be passed by the National Assembly this coming week, with a new National Election Committee formed by mid-April.
However, Mr. Rainsy said that he did not want to commit to any particular timeframe regarding the implementation of electoral reforms.
“Don’t mention timelines,” he said.
“In a political atmosphere that is conducive to a real and lasting solution, there should not be a deadline, timeline, conditions. You cannot impose your deadlines — your horizon. I think we have to work together to improve the political climate.”