Immigration police at Pochentong Airport prevented National Assemblyman and opposition activist Kem Sokha from leaving Cambodia on Thursday.
It was the first time the government has prevented a political leader from leaving the country since the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1991, legal experts said.
Senior government officials on Thursday reiterated the same reason: The police have orders from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Now [the party leaders] are all here inside the country, they cannot escape as [I] will order the airport to close for them to leave the country,” Hun Sen said Monday after two grenades exploded inside his Phnom Penh residence. No one was hurt or killed, and no one has been arrested.
Hun Sen made good on his word Thursday afternoon when Kem Sokha tried to board a Royal Air Cambodge flight to Bangkok at noon. Kem Sokha left for the airport from the capital at about 11:30 am with a UN representative and a US Embassy representative. He said he has asked UN officials to accompany him whenever he travels for safety reasons—a practice he has followed since before the July 26 elections.
Kem Sokha, a former member of the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, is chairman of the Assembly’s Commission on Human Rights, but did not win a seat in the recent elections under the renamed Son Sann Party. He fled the country after last year’s factional fighting.
Kem Sokha was planning to fly alone to Bangkok to meet with Son Soubert, a Constitutional Council member and former president of the Son Sann Party. The two were going to plan a party congress later this month. The meeting was to be held in Bangkok because of the tension in Phnom Penh, Kem Sokha said.
Kem Sokha said he checked in at the airport, received his boarding pass and gave immigration police his diplomatic Cambodian passport. Then he said he was asked to take a seat in the VIP lounge while police made phone calls. They returned and told Kem Sokha he could not go and that the order had come from “high,” Kem Sokha said.
Legal experts said restricting Kem Sokha violates Article 40 of the Constitution, which protects citizens’ right to travel and basic precepts on human rights.
“It is illegal, unconstitutional and a violation of the International Convention on Human Rights, which Cambodia has signed,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “As a Cambodian citizen he has the right to freedom of movement.”
It also appears to violate Article 80, which grants parliamentary immunity and says that any “accusation, arrest or detention of an Assembly member shall be made only with the permission of the National Assembly.” At least 80 members of parliament need to convene and pass any order to arrest, detain or accuse another member, lawyers and human rights workers said.
Son Soubert also condemned the action in a faxed statement: “These measures amount not only to the violation of the Khmer Constitution, but also to the violation of human rights.”
Senior CPP officials reached Thursday all said the order came from Hun Sen.
“Hun Sen said [opposition leaders] all stay until the investigation is finished,” said CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith. “Then they can leave the country.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said opposition leaders “should be staying here pending an investigation into the attack on Hun Sen’s house.”
Funcinpec Party President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha should be prevented from leaving because they destroyed public property during a two-week vigil in front of the National Assembly, said Ho Sothy, chief of cabinet for Hun Sen. He added that he doesn’t know how many people will be prevented from leaving and that this was a decision directly from Hun Sen.
Opposition leaders slammed Thursday’s action as political intimidation. “Now the regime is trying to teach the Cambodian people that resistance is useless and that their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly are worth nothing,” a joint Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy statement said.
The statement said the opposition had reduced its demands to “show our earnest desire to end the crisis…but instead of compromising, the regime is cracking down harder on its political opponents at all levels.”
Kem Sokha said he feared for his personal safety and hoped to meet with Lakhan Mehrotra, the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to Cambodia.
“I ask the international community to help me and the Cambodian people. We should have the right of freedom of the movement. The government…cannot do that,” Kem Sokha said.
(Additional reporting by Touch Rotha)