Opposition Leader Flees Cambodia, Lawmaker Arrested
A closed-door session of the National Assembly parliamentarians on Thursday voted in favor of stripping opposition leader Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity, prompting him to flee the country, while fellow opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy was also stripped of immunity and arrested late in the evening.
Cheam Channy was surrounded while traveling in vehicle in Phnom Penh at around 7 pm and arrested by military police, party officials said. He was taken to the military court and later transferred to National Military Police Headquarters.
Earlier in the day, 97 of the 104 parliamentarians present for the Assembly session voted to strip Sam Rainsy’s immunity, according to Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Chan Cheng, who attended the session.
The Assembly also voted to remove Cheam Channy and fellow opposition lawmaker Chea Poch of their immunity.
Neither Sam Rainsy, Cheam Channy, nor Chea Poch were present for the Assembly vote.
The three exited the Assembly and briefly took shelter at the US Embassy as the Assembly’s permanent committee tabled a motion to hold the vote to remove their immunity.
“I am not afraid of having my immunity stripped,” Sam Rainsy told reporters as he entered his car, headed toward the US Embassy.
By Thursday afternoon, the opposition leader had fled to an undisclosed country, the opposition’s Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said.
“He left the country because of the pressure,” Eng Chhay Eang added.
The controversial Assembly decision allows several court cases against the three to proceed. Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch face defamation lawsuits launched by Funcinpec for alleging that Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the Assembly and royalist party president, accepted bribes in return for joining the CPP in the current coalition government.
Cheam Channy stands accused of organizing a so-called illegal armed force, though the opposition party maintains he was merely heading a legitimate “shadow cabinet” to monitor government military activities.
He had returned to the Sam Rainsy Party headquarters on Thursday afternoon and was arrested as he and Eng Chhay Eang left the party offices in the secretary-general’s car, Eng Chhay Eang said.
A group of about 10 armed officers in civilian outfits and four or five uniformed military police officers swarmed the car and asked for Cheam Channy.
“My first impression, I thought I was robbed,” Eng Chhay Eang said, adding that the officers produced an arrest warrant, dated Thursday, accusing Cheam Channy of organizing a “shadow military” and for “opposing RCAF orders.”
They then escorted Cheam Channy to the military court, detaining him there for hours, before transferring him to the National Military Police Headquarters.
By late Thursday evening, he had neither been questioned nor released.
Several military police officers armed with AK-47 rifles were stationed outside the court and refused to allow fellow opposition parliamentarian Yim Sovann, reporters and members of local rights group Adhoc to enter.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never seen this country like this,” Adhoc spokesman Chan Soveth said.
Cheam Channy’s lawyer, Mao Sophearith, said the arrest was illegal, since his client was not issued a summons for questioning beforehand. Unless a person is caught red-handed in a crime, he or she must be questioned by the court before an arrest is made, he said.
“I don’t understand why they arrested him without first questioning him,” Mao Sophearith said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen told reporters earlier Thursday that the three would not necessarily be prosecuted in court.
“It only paves the way for the court” to question them, Hun Sen said after the session.
“They were stripped of their immunity because they abused someone’s right,” he said. “Democracy must be under the roof of the law. If democracy [exists] under the image of anarchy, it is not democracy.”
Hun Sen added that the international community should not criticize the move as it followed the 1993 Constitution, which states that a lawmaker’s immunity can be waived by a two-thirds majority vote by the Assembly.
“What we have done is just to please our people and the country. It is not to please someone else,” Hun Sen said.
The US Embassy, the US State Department and other observers, however, condemned the Assembly’s decision.
“The votes to strip immunity from three members of the opposition party…represent a major setback for democracy in Cambodia,” the US Embassy said in a statement.
“We are deeply concerned that the National Assembly has chosen to occupy itself with political activity that appears designed to silence the opposition,” it added.
US State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher also made a statement from Washington, DC, on Wednesday ahead of the vote, saying the department would be following the situation closely.
In another statement released Thursday, US-based Human Rights Watch also warned that the Assembly’s decision could serve a blow to democracy.
“The government has been looking for a year for a pretext to arrest Sam Rainsy. This is a very transparent effort to remove the opposition. With discussion about CPP and Funcinpec merging, this could pave the way for the return of a one-party state and erase everything accomplished to date,” Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights’ Watch, said from Geneva.
Echoing Hun Sen’s comments, however, Prince Ranariddh on Thursday defended the Assembly’s decision.
“We comply with the Constitution. It is not my personal problem,” he told reporters. “As the National Assembly’s president, I have allowed the opposition party to express their opinions, but they defamed me.”
Opposition party officials decried the removal of their leader’s immunity and Cheam Channy’s arrest as a measure to intimidate the party.
One Sam Rainsy Party member, who identified himself only as Cheat, said he received a death threat after he arranged Sam Rainsy’s airplane ticket out of the country. An unidentified caller sent two menacing text messages around 7 pm Thursday, one warning him to not speak out or “you will die.”
“Now they are going to crack down on us,” opposition lawmaker Yim Sovann said, adding that he expected others within his party to face arrest.
He said the Sam Rainsy Party will consider holding public demonstrations against Cheam Channy’s arrest, while opposition lawmakers will boycott future Assembly meetings.
Yim Sovann said he was confident that the international community would come to the party’s aid. “They support justice,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Wency Leung and Kevin Doyle)