Days after being sentenced to five months in jail for failing to appear for court summonses, CNRP acting president Kem Sokha yesterday said the party would have no choice but to resort to nationwide protests if their persecution by the government continues.
Speaking to supporters at party headquarters, Sokha said the court system had been used in an “unjust” way to target the party and that the CNRP had tried all options to reach a solution to the current political crisis.
“We will consider using our right to hold mass demonstrations throughout the country and in Phnom Penh,” Sokha said. “We cannot lie down, let them tie our hands and legs, close our nose and mouth till we die. Even animals will also struggle.”
Sokha said the party had tried to hold “Khmer to Khmer” negotiations with the Cambodian People’s Party to find a political solution but that the ruling party had failed to reciprocate.
“They look down on Khmer citizens. They are ignoring [requests] to debate and solve problems between Khmers and Khmers,” he said.
Sokha was convicted on Friday for refusing to appear for questioning in a prostitution case against two fellow lawmakers and sentenced to five months in prison and a $200 fine in the hour-long trial. The cases against Sokha and the lawmakers – widely considered politically motivated – have also seen the arrests of an opposition commune chief, four human rights workers and an election official.
The verdict was accompanied by nearly 300 CNRP supporters standing vigil at party headquarters in the event that authorities attempted to arrest Sokha. No such attempt was forthcoming, and Sokha now has one month to appeal his conviction. He already has an appeal at the Supreme Court contesting the procedures leading up to Friday’s trial.
Making a rare public appearance that morning, Sokha told supporters the case was aimed at destroying his political career and ensuring he would be on the sidelines of the upcoming commune and national elections.
While events at the party headquarters transpired uneventfully, there was a small scuffle between CNRP supporters and security personnel at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which led to the detention and subsequent release of party activist Um Dara for using a megaphone in front of the court.
Reacting to Sokha’s threat of mass demonstrations, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday that the embattled opposition leader shouldn’t question the legality of the case against him.
“His [Sokha] talking like this is a threat to the court. The court’s sentence was based on the law,” he said. The CNRP had the right to demonstrate, he added, but that the government had the “right to defend social security” if need be.
Founder of the Future Forum think tank Ou Virak said the party seemed to think this was the only option open to them, given that the CPP was relentless in its targeting of the CNRP.
“They are somewhat right that the CPP is not loosening their hold or stopping the harassment of the opposition,” he said. “And it seems like it will continue and there is no end in sight.”
He said the other option would be for the party to “buy time” until the elections, where they were likely to make gains thanks to the growing frustration among the electorate at the government’s actions.
While Sokha remains holed up at CNRP headquarters, his conviction can lead to the removal of his immunity and lawmaker status, according to the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly.
CNRP whip Son Chhay, however, said the ruling party should wait for the conclusion of the appeals process before initiating Sokha’s removal, though he said the CPP could jump on the chance before that.
The CPP’s Eysan maintained yesterday that the step would be taken only at the culmination of any appeal of the conviction.