The commune chief imprisoned six months ago in connection with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha’s alleged “prostitution” case was pardoned of his crime yesterday, with Interior Minister Sar Kheng saying the five others in jail over the case will be freed this month.
The pardon of Seang Chet, accused of bribing Sokha’s alleged mistress to deny an affair, came after Sokha and Prime Minister Hun Sen met for the first time since the premier last week had Sokha pardoned of his own five-month sentence related to the affair.
The private meeting took place after a sitting of the National Assembly about the national budget, with Sokha and Hun Sen – who has spent much of this year attacking the deputy Cambodia National Rescue Party vice president – beaming as they walked the halls together.
Hun Sen also said in the assembly that only Sokha – and not opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who fled the country a year ago to avoid jail – is Cambodia’s “minority leader” now, after the CNRP submitted changes to its assembly leadership after Sokha’s pardon.
Rainsy, who on Monday in-sisted the role of minority leader remained his and that Sokha had in fact taken a different role as leader of the minority group of lawmakers, responded by saying on Facebook that the position he holds “is not important”.
On the advice of Hun Sen, King Norodom Sihamoni in the afternoon issued a pardon for Chet, who as of last night was not yet free. Kheng, the “majority leader” in the assembly, had announced the pending release of Chet and five others in prison.
“As I know, before the end of this month, there will be a solution in the case of the human rights officials and the deputy secretary general of the NEC,” he said, referring to four officials from the group Adhoc and the National Election Committee’s Ny Chakrya.
Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lem Mony of Adhoc and the NEC’s Chakrya, who previously worked at Adhoc, were also arrested in April for “bribery” of Sokha’s alleged mistress after they gave her $204 while assisting her. The rights group, which was representing the woman as anti-terrorism police interrogated her over the alleged affair, said it was standard practice to provide small-scale financial support to those it represented, and denied ever telling her to deny the alleged affair.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Sokha’s private meeting with Hun Sen yesterday had concerned “national unity”, the work processes of the assembly in the coming period, and finding a political solution to the many opposition activists jailed over the past two years.
“It’s in the circuit of political resolution,” Sovann said of the imprisoned Adhoc officials and NEC deputy secretary-general. “There will be [a resolution] soon.”
The sudden talk of resolution comes after Sokha was on Friday pardoned of his conviction for ignoring summonses for questioning in the case. Sokha had been holed up at CNRP headquarters for the past six months to avoid arrest, as Hun Sen threatened to jail him “forever”.
The premier’s Cambodian People’s Party had for months been pushing the CNRP to officially replace Rainsy with Sokha as minority leader, and the CNRP finally submitted the changes on Monday. Yet there was confusion about what the change meant.
Rainsy said that Sokha was merely replacing him as head of the CNRP’s lawmaker delegation – as Kheng’s counterpart – and not as “minority leader”. He claimed that he remained in that position and that his opposite in the role was Hun Sen.
He pointed to Article 48 of the asembly’s rules, which were amended in late 2014 to create the position for Rainsy, then in a “culture of dialogue” with Hun Sen. But the article appeared to contradict his claim, and Hun Sen said yesterday that his interpretation was wishful thinking.
“Some websites still said that the leader of the minority group is kept for Sam Rainsy, and that the head of the lawmaker group is kept for Kem Sokha,” Hun Sen said, admitting that he had been keen to correct the record that the role was one and the same.
“This morning I had to rush to the National Assembly,” the premier said. “In Article 48, it does not require two individuals to hold two separate roles, the head of the minority being one person and the head of the lawmaker group being one person.
“Now, his excellency [Sokha] has become the dialogue partner of . . . Sar Kheng, as the head of the lawmaker group, and also my counterpart in discussing national problems that concern the prime minister.”
Hun Sen has since the 2013 election been accused of trying to divide Rainsy and Sokha, who merged their rival opposition parties in July 2012 in an attempt to unseat the premier, alternating playing favourites with one as he scolds the other.
Rainsy declined to comment yesterday, and directed reporters to his Facebook page, where he had a post saying he believed his “position is not important” and recounted what had been done to him since he fled the country in November 2015.
“Position is not important. What is important is one’s integrity and dignity,” Rainsy wrote. “I gladly accept everything if I can help rescue our country and make it prosperous.”
“They chased [me] from the National Assembly; they lifted my parliamentary immunity; they sentenced me to prison terms; they issued an arrest warrant against me; they exiled me and blocked all possibilities for me to come back to my native country; they misinterpreted the Constitution and the National Assembly’s rules the way they want,” he added. “But I remain true to myself and will remain faithful to my motherland until the end of my life.”
Sokha, speaking at the assembly, offered a similar message, saying official titles were less important than goals. He added that his meeting with Hun Sen had led to an agreement for the parties to be nicer to each other.
“We try to do work to get success in what we want all together,” Sokha said. “For positions, the titles are just a way for us to travel to that [objective]. We will continue to work together in this framework . . . solving problems between Khmer and Khmer.
We must all be careful to avoid any bothers that make our processes not reach the target,” he said.
Sokha is this morning set to visit Prey Sar prison to meet 15 imprisoned CNRP officials, but will not be allowed to visit Chet, the pardoned commune chief, or CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An, who was imprisoned in April over a separate criminal case.
The pair are currently under court procedures, a letter from prison director Chan Kimseng said, “so there should be a request from a court authority” before Sokha or anyone can meet them in prison.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA AND ALEX WILLEMYNS