The National Assembly on Monday voted to strip the parliamentary immunity of Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann during a closed-door session, opening the two opposition leaders to prosecution in lawsuits filed against them at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Ninety of the 111 lawmakers present voted by a show of hands to take away Ms Sochua’s immunity, and 91 voted in favor of stripping Ho Vann’s immunity, accord-
ing to senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap. Under the Const-
itution, a two-thirds vote of the Assembly—or 82 lawmakers—is needed to remove a parliamentarian’s immunity. The ruling CPP alone currently has 90 members in the Assembly.
Security was tight for Mon-
day’s session, with clusters of anti-riot police stationed around the Assembly and military police positioned at regular intervals many blocks from the compound. With the session being held behind closed doors, journalists, foreign diplomats and NGO representatives were barred from viewing the debate—a decision that was decried by representatives of the US, French, British, and German embassies.
Ms Sochua faces defamation charges leveled against her by Prime Minister Hun Sen because she filed a defamation suit of her own against the premier. Her own lawsuit against the prime minister was thrown out of court earlier this month. Mr Vann has been accused of defamation and incitement by 22 senior RCAF officials for supposedly criticizing graduate degrees they had received from a Vietnamese military institute.
The debate on whether to remove Ms Sochua’s immunity had been anticipated since last week when it was placed on the Assembly’s official schedule, but the decision to include a vote on Mr Vann’s immunity came as a surprise to many, being added to the agenda at the last minute.
Mr Yeap said that National Assembly President Heng Samrin decided to include Mr Vann’s case in Monday’s Assembly agenda after receiving a request from the Ministry of Justice on Friday.
“The National Assembly doesn’t have to announce it before the meeting; we have complied with the Assembly’s internal regulations,” Mr Yeap said.
Foreign diplomats hoping to attend Monday’s session of parliament were left frustrated by the decision to keep the debate out of the public eye.
“Representatives from the American, the German, the British and the French embassies are here this morning and unfortunately we were refused entry. We are surprised and disappointed about this. We don’t understand why access has been denied,” British Embassy Deputy Head of Mission Elizabeth Evans told reporters outside the Assembly compound.
Her disappointment was echoed by German Ambassador Frank Mann and French Embassy Charge d’Affaires Laurent Lemarchand, who both also sought entrance to the Assembly session on Monday morning.
“[T]here has been no reason given why today this is not a public session. So of course we are disappointed,” Mr Mann told reporters. “We will leave and we will ask ourselves, and of course we will ask the government, what has been the reason for rejecting our participation today,” he said.
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said in an e-mail Monday afternoon that his embassy was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision not to make the session public.
“It is a matter of concern if the Cambodian people cannot witness and hold accountable their elected members for their actions on the floor of the National Assembly,” Mr Johnson continued.
Mr Yeap said that the Assem-
bly president called for the closed session after receiving a request from 54 CPP lawmakers—well more than the one quarter of lawmakers needed to make such a petition.
He also brusquely dismissed the complaints of the barred diplomats, saying: “The National Assembly has complied with the law regardless of whether they are happy or not happy.”
SRP and Human Rights Party parliamentarians stormed out of Assembly on Monday after lawmakers from the CPP, Norodom Ranariddh Party and Funcinpec stripped Ms Sochua’s immunity.
The opposition lawmakers came out to face the media in front of the Assembly wearing surgical masks with an “X” drawn across them as a protest, according to the lawmakers, meant to show that there is no freedom of expression in Cambodia.
“The Assembly lawmakers were raising hands to strip immunities of SRP lawmaker Ho Vann and myself very unjustly…. They didn’t consider the national interest,” Ms Sochua told reporters. “They have considered their party’s interest by providing benefits to Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose comments affected my reputation and my roles as a lawmaker.”
“Is the Assembly [for all] or is it the CPP’s National Assembly? And we see that it is very dangerous for democracy,” she added.
Ms Sochua said that her lawyer has appealed the Phnom Penh court’s dismissal of her defamation complaint against the prime minister, which claims that the premier defamed her in an April 4 nationally broadcast speech.
“Our country is facing another danger, the judicial system which is being influenced from above. The judicial system doesn’t regard the law and only complies with the powerful people. It is very dangerous for all people,” she said.
Mr Vann told reporters that he was surprised to learn that the Assembly had also moved to take away his immunity.
“I didn’t know in advance. I thought my case had been finished. I didn’t anticipate that. I am a victim. I want all people to consider that,” he said.
Mr Vann added that he would continue with the court process in his case.
What this development means in the immediate future for both lawmakers remained uncertain Monday.
Deputy Municipal Prosecutor Sok Roeun, who is handling both cases against the lawmakers, declined to comment Monday, saying he was too busy to speak with a reporter.
But Phnom Penh Court Director Chiv Keng said by telephone Monday that both cases are still in the deputy prosecutor’s hands, which means that formal charges have not yet been brought against either lawmaker. For that to occur, Mr Roeun would have to first pass on the cases to an investigating judge.
Even if they are charged, it is uncertain whether Ms Sochua would be arrested or detained ahead of trial, as defamation no longer carries a prison term penalty. Mr Vann, however, potentially faces two separate charges of incitement: incitement leading to the commission of a crime and incitement not leading to the commission of a crime. If convicted of the latter he could face between one and five years in prison, but if he is convicted of the former he could be treated as hjhj