Opposition lawmaker Um Sam An was officially charged with incitement on Tuesday, with civil society “unreservedly” condemning the border activist’s arrest even as Prime Minister Hun Sen leapt to defend it.
According to a court document signed by investigating judge Top Chhun Heng, Sam An was charged with “incitement to commit a felony (causing chaos in society) and incitement to cause discrimination”, and placed under pre-trial detention.
The charges stem from a border campaign waged last year by the Cambodia National Rescue Party firebrand that saw him accuse the government losing territory to Vietnam and using improper maps in demarcating their shared border.
Sam An’s lawyer, Sam Sok Kong, decried the charges as “completely political” and an infringement on his client’s right to free expression.
“We cannot accept the charges because he just expressed his views on behalf his people, and as a lawmaker he has the right to exercise his rights in compliance with Cambodian law and international law,” he said.
Meanwhile, a group of 13 civil society organisations released a statement on Tuesday saying Sam An’s arrest not only “plainly undermine[s] the constitutional guarantee of immunity for members of the National Assembly, but it also signifies the shrinking democratic space and intolerance of political pluralism in Cambodia”.
Though the Constitution guarantees lawmakers’ immunity from arrest and prosecution, officials have argued that Sam An’s arrest is legal under a specific clause that allows for individuals to be prosecuted if caught “in flagrante delicto”, or red-handed.
Hun Sen yesterday took to Facebook to repeat those arguments, and to call for the arrests of anyone else claiming the government had used “fake” maps in its demarcation process.
“I would to announce strongly that for anyone who talks about fake maps, there must be arrests immediately, no matter who they are,” he said.
“The issue of fake or genuine maps cannot be raised,” he added. “You are committing a red-handed crime.”
However, in their statement, the CSOs argue that the government’s interpretation of the “in flagrante delicto” clause “reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the accepted meaning of this legal principle”.
“It is widely understood to be a very narrow exception in which the culpability of the accused individual is entirely beyond doubt, thus justifying the disapplication of ordinary procedures. It is plainly untenable to claim that there is overwhelming evidence that Mr. Sam An is guilty of criminal conduct,” the statement continues. “Further, it is nonsensical to claim that the in flagrant delicto exception can apply when the arrest relates to events that took place such a long time ago.”
Opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour was arrested and jailed last year under similar circumstances, and on the same legal basis, for allegedly posting portions of a “fake” border treaty with Vietnam.
Alluding to that case, and the numerous “baseless” court cases recently levelled at self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the organisations go on to say that the “relentless persecution of the political opposition … and the shrinking of democratic space is extremely alarming”.