Cambodian lawmakers will wait until after the July 27 general election to debate whether to strip opposition leader Sam Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity, in a bid to ease political tensions ahead of the polls, European Union elections observers said.
Rainsy faces investigation and possible arrest over defamation claims made by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong if he loses his legislative protection.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a request on June 16 that the National Assembly “temporarily suspend the immunity of Sam Rainsy,” adding that the court had collected enough evidence to warrant further investigation into the accusations made against him by Namhong.
Namhong alleges he was defamed when Rainsy said during a speech on April 17 that under the Khmer Rouge regime he was the director of Boeng Trabek prison, a detention center for intellectuals and members of the royal family.
Namhong has repeatedly said that he was an ordinary prisoner at Boeng Trabek, denying that he worked for the regime, whose 1975-79 rule over Cambodia resulted in 1.7 million deaths in one of the darkest chapters of the 20th century.
But the EU’s chief election observer, Martin Callanan, told reporter’s on June 20 that Namhong had assured poll monitors that no move would be made against Rainsy until after the election.
“Hor Namhong ... assured [EU] election observers that parliamentary immunity of the opposition leader Sam Rainsy would not be stripped before the July national elections,” Callanan said.
Election monitors said they welcomed the decision, saying Rainsy’s participation in the vote would help ensure a stabile political atmosphere.
“It’s a good that Rainsy can join the campaign because it will make the election go smoothly,” said Mar Sophal of the election monitor Comfrel.
Rainsy last lost his parliamentary immunity in 1995 while he was in self-imposed exile in France, shortly before he was convicted of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen in a case that drew heavy international criticism.
Although he was later pardoned and returned to Cambodia, Rainsy says the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, of which Hun Sen is a member, is still trying to shut him down and earlier dismissed the July polls as “meaningless” in the face of the CPP’s political maneuvering.
In the weeks leading up to the campaign season Hun Sen ordered an investigation into the Sam Rainsy Party, claiming that defectors had implicated the opposition in a number of violent plots, including the 1998 rocket attack against the prime minister and a 2000 attack in the capital by the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a band of self-proclaimed coup makers led by a Cambodian-American.
In a letter to the CPP on June 18, the opposition called on Hun Sen to stop intimidating Sam Rainsy followers with threats of prosecution over phantom plots.
“The accusations that the SRP is involved in violence is unacceptable.... The SRP has no culture of violence,” the party’s statement said.