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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MP's immunity debate opens

MP's immunity debate opens

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Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN

Activist Yeng Virak outside the National Assembly on Monday, after delivering a letter to Assembly President Heng Samrin.

THE National Assembly's Permanent Committee met Monday to consider a court-sanctioned request to lift the immunity of opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua and allow Prime Minister Hun Sen's defamation suit against her to go ahead, officials said.

"The issue of lifting [Mu Sochua's] immunity has been included in the agenda for this session of the Permanent Committee, and a decision will come on June 22, when the Assembly will [decide whether to] adopt" the committee's recommendations,  senior Cambodian People's Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap told the Post Monday.

The defamation case against the outspoken Kampot lawmaker is a response to Mu Sochua's attempt to sue the prime minister for what she says were defamatory remarks made about her during a speech in April.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court rejected Mu Sochua's  lawsuit last week, saying it was groundless, but moved ahead with Hun Sen's countersuit, asking the National Assembly to lift Mu Sochua's immunity so that it might proceed with questioning.

Mu Sochua told the Post Monday she would go to jail rather than pay the 10 million riels (US$2,410) that Hun Sen is demanding.

"I have said again and again that my case is a symbol of the entire justice system in Cambodia, and I repeat: I will not pay.... I am ready to go to prison, and I would like to emphasise I will not flee," said the former Minister of Women's Affairs, who has a US passport.

Since Mu Sochua's case was discussed at a standard session of the committee, a decision will still have to be approved by two-thirds of the members of the National Assembly.

The ruling CPP holds more than two-thirds of seats in the body.

Last year, an extraordinary session of the 12-member Permanent Committee was called to strip opposition leader Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity.

The Permanent Committee is made up of the heads of all the Assembly's committees - all of whom are CPP members - and presided over by Assembly President Heng Samrin.

In an April 4 speech in Kampot, Hun Sen referred to an unnamed lawmaker as a cheung klang, or "strong leg", term viewed by some as particularly offensive to women. Mu Sochua has said repeatedly that the speech clearly referred to her, noting that Hun Sen described the same lawmaker as a "strong female MP from the opposition party in Kampot" who lost a button on her shirt while running around embracing people.

During last year's election campaign, Mu Sochua was involved in an altercation in which she said an army general tore a button from her blouse and exposed her bra.

Mu Sochua said that if the prime minister's comments in April did not refer to her, as his defence team claim, he should clarify to whom he was referring. "He must take responsibility for his words and answer in front of parliament," she said.

Also Monday, 11 civil society groups delivered a letter to Heng Samrin asking the Assembly reconsider stripping Mu Sochua of her immunity.

"If parliamentary immunity can be lifted easily, it makes everyone afraid; if parliamentarians have fear, democracy and national development have problems," said the director of the Community Legal Education Centre ,Yeng Virak, who was allowed to deliver the letter.

The letter outlined concerns over the lawsuits, and urged the duelling parliamentarians to resolve the matter out of court, saying they "regret" that CPP lawmaker and permanent committee member Cheam Yeap had already announced publicly that parliament would lift Mu Sochua's immunity, Yeng Virak said.

The president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, Rong Chhun, said parliamentary immunity would be worthless if it could be lifted so easily, and threatened mass protests if the Assembly went ahead with the move.

"If Mu Sochua is arrested, we will lead mass demonstrations throughout the country with teachers and workers."

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