The opposition party’s plan to have detained official Meach Sovannara released from prison by making him a lawmaker hit a major roadblock yesterday, with the party colleague he is supposed to replace in the National Assembly voicing his absolute objection to the idea.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Interior Minister Sar Kheng also met yesterday to discuss election reform and the release of a number of imprisoned activists, but announced no breakthrough after their meeting.
Sovannara has been in prison since November 11, when he was arrested in connection to an opposition-led protest on July 15. That protest turned violent and has been used by authorities to arrest more than a dozen CNRP members and officials on what rights groups say are trumped-up charges. Three other CNRP activists in addition to Sovannara remain behind bars.
CNRP leaders have said that they want Yont Tharo, an elected lawmaker in Banteay Meanchey province and the party’s number two candidate there in last July’s national election, to give up his seat for Sovannara, who failed to win a seat as the CNRP’s third candidate in the province.
The CNRP believes that if Sovannara gains parliamentary immunity, he will be released from prison.
But Tharo yesterday said he “did not know anything” about his looming replacement and had no intention of stepping down.
“I will not resign even if the party tries to force me to resign,” he told the Post. “I hope that this will not happen. I do not agree if it will happen to me.”
The 54-year-old served as head of the Sam Rainsy Party in Banteay Meanchey between 2006 and the SRP’s merger with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party ahead of last year’s election that created the CNRP.
Sovannara happens to be a former HRP official, adding an awkward dimension to the quagmire the CNRP now finds itself in.
While the CNRP has only publicly talked about the swap since Sovannara’s arrest – leading most observers to believe it was solely related to getting him out of jail – Sovannara told the Post months ago that he would be taking Tharo’s spot in the assembly.
Deputy CNRP president Kem Sokha admitted yesterday that this was true.
“We have long aimed for this replacement, but until now we have not yet decided, because we are waiting for a little time to see the political situation,” Sokha said.
National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nytha said he had yet to receive any request from the CNRP to swap lawmakers, but said parties could replace candidates who die or resign from their post.
Chan Ken, a lawyer for Sovannara, said that while he had heard rumours about the swap, he had not received any official documents and that his client was still waiting for the result of his bail appeal.
After a meeting yesterday at the National Assembly with Sar Kheng, Sam Rainsy said that he had asked for the release of Sovannara and more than 10 activists, including monks and land-rights protesters, rounded up and in some cases convicted over the past few weeks.
“We want to have an easing of tension. We want to see the release of all them and an end to all the procedures of the court for these people.” Rainsy said.
“They just demanded their rights, such as [the flooding] of their houses at Boeung Kak lake. They just protested like this, so why have they been jailed for one year?”
While Rainsy said that Kheng had agreed to take his appeal “into account”, the interior minister told reporters that the fate of the cases depended solely on the courts.
The two leaders also spoke about remaining disagreements on a new National Election Committee law being drafted by the two parties, but declined to comment on any specifics until they reached full agreement.
“[I] would like to decline to comment, because there is nothing difficult [about this],” Kheng said.