Seven opposition lawmakers charged with inciting violence during a protest in Phnom Penh last year were not covered by parliamentary immunity for their alleged crimes and should be prosecuted as soon as possible, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers were arrested following a July 15 protest at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park where several district security guards were badly beaten by opposition supporters.
The lawmakers were charged with leading an insurrection, instigating violence and inciting others to commit crimes – charges the MPs deny. The group was released after CNRP president Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen penned a deal on July 22 to end almost a year of political stalemate after the 2013 election.
After the deal was signed, the opposition lawmakers took up their seats in parliament and assumed the immunity from prosecution that goes with it. But in a speech to graduating students in Svay Rieng province yesterday, Hun Sen said the immunity should not protect them in this instance.
“I, Hun Sen, as an MP and also leader of the … [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] do not support the dismissal of the seven court cases of the CNRP lawmakers, because your immunity was granted after you were charged,” he said.
He added that it would take three-quarters of the country’s 123 elected representatives to vote in favour of extending the lawmakers’ immunity to cover the period before they took their seats.
“The political compromise is not effective with these outstanding criminal complaints. I call on the court to prosecute and convict them as soon as possible,” he said.
Opposition supporters and rights groups have condemned the charges as politically motivated and aimed at applying pressure to the CNRP during sensitive discussions.
But Hun Sen insisted yesterday that this was not the case.
“I respect the court, even though [the CNRP] is always saying that the CPP and Hun Sen use the courts as a tool.”
Rainsy sought to play down Hun Sen’s comments yesterday, saying his party’s aim was to reduce tensions between the CNRP and CPP while negotiations over the amendment of laws relating to elections and the reform of the National Election Commission were still ongoing.
“We want to diffuse the tension; this is the spirit of the July 22 agreement,” Rainsy said.
“We fully respect the letter of this agreement. There are already too many people in jail,” he added, referring to five CNRP members and supporters who were also arrested after the July 15 violence.
Hun Sen, however, called on Rainsy to enter into direct negotiations over the fate of the seven lawmakers.
“Sam Rainsy must come to negotiate with me on the matter, but I must say that I will not agree [with Rainsy].… I don’t mean to pick a fight with anyone. I only desire harmony,” he said.
While Rainsy tried to dismiss the spat, saying that it stemmed from a “misunderstanding” and would only be “temporary”, Mu Sochua, one of the seven lawmakers charged last year, said Hun Sen’s comments represented a threat to judicial independence.
“It is a clear threat to the justice system.… We have strict immunity, and to change that you need three-quarters of [the] votes, which the CPP cannot achieve,” she said. “This is also a threat against the people, because we represent the people.
“We were wrongly detained and wrongly charged,” she went on to say.
Sochua was charged under Article 459 of the Criminal Code, along with fellow lawmakers Men Sothav Rin, Ho Vann, Real Camerin, Keo Phirom, Long Ry and Nuth Rumduol.
In the 2013 election, the CPP won 68 seats in the legislature, while the CNRP, led by Rainsy and Kem Sokha, won the remaining 55 seats.
The opposition rejected the results, claiming widespread voter fraud. The months that followed were punctuated by frequent street protests and violent government crackdowns, culminating in the deaths of at least five people and the destruction of an opposition protest camp at Freedom Park.
Working groups from both parties continue to hold twice-weekly meetings to negotiate the details of the political deal signed last year, although there are signs that Hun Sen’s patience may be wearing thin.
During his speech yesterday, the prime minister said that if the CNRP negotiators failed to agree with the CPP’s proposals, they could be brought to parliament and voted on by MPs. Rejecting the proposals would then need more than 50 per cent of sitting MPs to vote with the CNRP, which holds less than 45 per cent of the seats in Cambodia’s legislature.
Bin Chhin, a deputy prime minister and lead CPP negotiator, said that time was running out for an agreement to be made without the proposals being taken to the National Assembly.
“When the leaders meet and disagree, the only solution is to put the draft law from the CPP and the draft law from the CNRP to parliament. Whichever one parliament approves, we will take that one,” he said. “If there is still disagreement after the debates, we will tell the CNRP what my leader has told us to do – we will send [the laws] to parliament.”
However, he added that there was still a chance the working groups would come to an agreement as more than half of the articles needing amendment had already been drafted and agreed on.
CNRP president Rainsy said he was not unhappy with the progress of the negotiations. “So far, so good,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA