A throng of opposition supporters remained at Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters in Phnom Penh as night fell yesterday, after heavily armed police attempted unsuccessfully to arrest the party’s acting president, Kem Sokha, earlier in the day.
Sokha yesterday ignored a second summons to appear at Phnom Penh Municipal Court to answer questions about an alleged dalliance with hairdresser Khom Chandaraty – a case observers have widely deemed to be politically motivated.
At about 11:30am, a group of police armed with rifles stopped Sokha’s car on Norodom Boulevard near Boeung Keng Kang Market. However, the lawmaker was not inside, according to Sokha’s chief of cabinet, Muth Chanta.
Then, just after midday, a swarm of police – accompanied by the prosecutor, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak – arrived at CNRP headquarters on National Road 2 in a bid to find Sokha, who CNRP parliamentarian Eng Chhay Eang said was in a “safe place”.
The attempted arrest falls into murky legal ground: for ignoring a second summons, police can forcibly compel a person to attend a hearing, according to Cambodian law. However, Sokha still holds the parliamentary privilege of immunity, and cannot be arrested unless that immunity is stripped from him by the National Assembly.
Police dispersed when CNRP members demanded they present an arrest warrant, but Sopheak urged Sokha to turn himself in. “Today, he can run, but next time he cannot escape,” Sopheak said.
He batted away questions of Sokha’s immunity, saying he was caught “red-handed” – an apparent reference to a loophole allowing for a lawmaker’s arrest should they be caught in flagrante delicto, or in the act of committing a crime. He also insisted that the large number of armed police was necessary, adding they were simply following the counsel of the court.
“The authorities need to protect themselves . . . If they do not do it like this, it can cause a shooting incident. Therefore, we need to use weapons to prevent it, and we cannot use an empty hand,” he said.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann yesterday quashed rumours – sparked by a Facebook post from CNRP member Sisowath Thomico – that Sokha would surrender himself, saying no decision had been reached on the party’s next steps.
Sovann could not confirm Sokha’s whereabouts yesterday. Despite being at CNRP headquarters himself, he said he did not know if Sokha was seeking refuge somewhere inside.
Party leader Sam Rainsy, who is in self-imposed exile for fear of his own arrest over outstanding charges, denounced yesterday’s police actions.
“Our party is keeping calm as the government is desperately trying to weaken our determination by creating and maintaining an atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” Rainsy said.
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, along with Sokha’s lawyer Sam Sokong and legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, all highlighted Sokha’s immunity under the constitution.
“They cannot arrest him unless they have a warrant for his arrest, and they have to strip his immunity first,” Chhay Eang said.
“He relies on immunity under the law to defend him. This is a test as to whether our country respects the constitution or not,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
The US Embassy decried the “deployment of paramilitary forces” as “disproportionate and dangerous” in a statement yesterday.
“We call on the government to refrain from using unnecessary force and urge the government and CNRP to resume dialogue immediately to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” the statement read.
Independent human rights consultant Billy Tai said yesterday’s events were “a blatant violation of the constitution” that undermined the government’s legitimacy.
He said the scare tactics were likely designed to “really send that chill down the opposition’s spine”, and the possibility of Sokha being arrested or fleeing the country would leave the party flailing.
“If he shows his face, he’ll be arrested. If he runs away, he’s not going to be effective on the ground anymore,” Tai said.
“Maybe this was the CPP plot all along – all the other arrests, of Adhoc, of lawmakers, possibly are just sideshows.”