In the wake of another unanimous National Assembly vote to remove opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity for the second time this year, scholars and observers said this week that the frequency with which immunity is lifted in Cambodia is highly unusual.
In a democracy, they said, immunity tends to be removed rarely, and typically only in connection with flagrant criminality.
“It’s been used far more in Cambodia than elsewhere of late,” said Phil Larkin, a lead researcher at the Parliamentary Studies Center at the Australian National University.
Brad Adams, Asia Director for Human Rights Watch and a staunch government critic, agreed.
“I’m not aware of any other country lifting immunity as a form of political retribution,” he said. “Certainly no other country does it this regularly or for such trivial reasons.”
In addition to lifting Mr Rainsy’s immunity this week and once in February, the National Assembly in June removed the immunity of SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann so that they could be sued for defamation.
Immunity is designed to protect legislators from intimidation by reducing the possibility that they will be influenced by fear of prosecution. Without the guarantee of immunity, lawmakers would find it hard to speak and debate freely and to protect the rights of their constituents.
The Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union has tracked 455 human rights abuses against parliamentarians worldwide so far this year.
Just four of these involved a failure to respect immunity. One of them was the case of Ms Sochua.
“In democracies, the lifting of immunity is indeed extremely rare and is done only to deal with Berlusconi-style criminal rascals,” said Steve Finch, a professor of political science at the University of California Berkeley, referring to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been embroiled in several ethics scandals.
Lifting a colleague’s immunity tends to be politically tricky as it can lead to retribution, he said, noting that in a non-democracy with a single dominant party and a strong prime minister, such as Cambodia’s, things are different.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that parliamentary immunity is lifted more often in Cambodia for a very simple reason: because opposition politicians here abuse it more.
“In Cambodia, the difference is that the opposition uses immunity to insult other politicians,” he said, adding that legislators also should not interfere in human rights issues because “we have legal groups for that.”
In an e-mail sent yesterday, Riccardo Pelizzo, a research fellow at the Center for Governance and Policy at Australia’s Griffith University, disagreed, saying that the removal of immunity was indeed a growing problem throughout Southeast Asia—and citing several recent examples in Thailand and Singapore—but calling the issue a “byproduct of the democratization of the region.”
“In the past, the ruling elites did not have to lift immunity to get rid of the parliamentary opposition, because the opposition forces were not as strong,” he said. “These abuses of power are a sign that democracy is growing rather than fading away.”
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin)