The National Assembly yesterday stripped SRP lawmaker Chan Cheng of his parliamentarian immunity so that the Kandal Provincial Court can question him over his alleged involvement in the escape of a prisoner at the provincial prison.
The opposition party criticized the move, pointing to it as further proof of the ruling CPP using the country’s partial courts to harass government critics.
“The permanent committee [of the Assembly] met on Thursday following the requests of Kandal Provincial Court and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to suspend the immunity of Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Chan Cheng,” CPP National Assembly lawmaker and permanent committee member Cheam Yeap said.
Mr. Cheng is accused of helping Meas Peng, the SRP deputy chief of Kien Svay district’s Banteay Dek commune, to escape from pretrial detention on Nov 23, Mr. Yeap said, adding that members of Parliament cannot use their positions to “violate the rule of law.”
Mr. Peng was waiting to be processed at the provincial prison after being charged with incitement for supporting villagers embroiled in a land dispute when he “escaped,” Kandal Provincial Prison director Muong Sam Ath said.
He said Mr. Peng had been sent to the prison by the court after being charged with incitement on Nov 23, but that he didn’t immediately incarcerate Mr. Peng as he was awaiting the court’s written order.
“Before the order could be sent over, Mr. Cheng and Mr. Peng’s lawyer Chuo Chuongy arrived and accused the court of trying to jail Mr. Peng without an order,” he said, adding that most of the prison guards were on their lunch break when Mr. Cheng and Mr. Chuongy drove away with Mr. Peng.
Mr. Peng has not yet been sent back to the prison, Mr Sam Ath said.
Kandal Provincial Court Prosecutor Ouk Kemsith said he had written to Minister Vong Vathana and National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Dec 7, asking them to intervene and suspend Mr. Cheng’s immunity so that he could be questioned.
Mr. Cheng denied any wrongdoing yesterday and said the case was between Mr. Chuongy, the lawyer, and the court.
“This case did not involve me; it is the issue between Mr. Chuongy and the court’s investigating Judge Lem Sokuntha. It’s typical for the CPP to threaten the SRP through the court system,” Mr. Cheng added.
Mr. Yeap, the ruling CPP’s defacto spokesman, accused Mr. Cheng of using his parliamentary immunity to help Mr. Peng escape.
“It breaks the rule of law and it is not only SRP members; even CPP lawmakers would also have to face the court,” he said.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that Mr. Cheng’s immunity was stripped because the CPP wants to stifle the opposition in the lead up to next year’s commune elections.
“There’s no check and balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch,” SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said. “Everything in Cambodia is controlled by ruling party…. This is a modern authoritarian regime.”
SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann were stripped of their immunity in June 2009 over separate defamation cases; party leader Sam Rainsy lost his immunity in Nov 2009, one of at least two occasions, over the removal of a Vietnamese border marker; and lawmakers Cheam Channy and Chea Poch had their immunity lifted in 2005.
Mr Sovann said that no CPP lawmakers have ever received the same treatment.
However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan recalled losing his immunity as a senator alongside two other CPP senators about 10 years ago.
“There were three of us and it was about 2000 or 2001. There was Chhang Song, Teou Savath and me,” he said.
“We’d spoken out against a draft law at the time; we had free speech internally, but we didn’t toe the party line,” he said, adding with a laugh that the stripping of immunity was “common in Cambodia,” even if you are a member of the ruling party.
“I don’t know why people make a big deal out of it,” he said.
Judge Sokuntha said the court has not yet summoned Mr. Cheng for questioning.
(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)