Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Assembly OKs Sokha case while Hun Sen doubles down on condemnation of 'treasonous' opposition leader

Assembly OKs Sokha case while Hun Sen doubles down on condemnation of 'treasonous' opposition leader

Cordons of Military Police and soldiers yesterday block the entrance to Tbong Khmum’s Correctional Centre 3, where opposition leader Kem Sokha is detained on charges of ‘treason’ for his alleged collusion with the US to topple the CPP-led government.
Cordons of Military Police and soldiers yesterday block the entrance to Tbong Khmum’s Correctional Centre 3, where opposition leader Kem Sokha is detained on charges of ‘treason’ for his alleged collusion with the US to topple the CPP-led government. Hong Menea

Assembly OKs Sokha case while Hun Sen doubles down on condemnation of 'treasonous' opposition leader

The credibility of next year’s election was thrown further into doubt yesterday, as ruling party lawmakers approved the “treason” case against opposition leader Kem Sokha, the prime minister doubled down on threats to dissolve the opposition and a CNRP lawmaker threatened to boycott the ballot.

According to an official notice released by the National Assembly, 67 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers yesterday voted to allow authorities to continue their case against the opposition leader, who faces up 30 years in prison on a charge of “conspiring with a foreign power”.

The notice said there was no motion to halt the case during the extraordinary plenary session, which was unsurprising as the session was boycotted by Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers, many of whom instead travelled to Correctional Centre 3 in Tbong Khmum province in an attempt to visit Sokha, who is being held at the remote facility.

Blocked from visiting their leader and surrounded by about 200 police, Military Police and soldiers, the group of 18 opposition lawmakers and seven senators condemned the “illegal” arrest and vowed to return weekly to demand their president’s release.

Speaking outside the prison, which was yesterday shut off to all visitors, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the party would walk away from next year’s ballot if Sokha remained in prison. “We cannot accept that authorities have arrested our President Kem Sokha on [September] 3 and violated the law,” Sochua said.

“In terms of a free and fair election, if the President of the CNRP Kem Sokha is not released and cannot participate in the upcoming election, we cannot participate in the elections . . . because it opposes our people’s will and that of the nation.”

Authorities claim Sokha conspired with the United States to topple the government. His midnight arrest, however, is widely seen as part of a broader pre-election CPP crackdown against critics, the media and the CNRP, which captured 55 of 123 Assembly seats at 2013’s national ballot and is seen as the CPP’s only legitimate competition.

The growing question of the legitimacy of next July’s election also appeared to be on the mind of Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday, who missed casting his vote at the National Assembly and instead spoke to almost 4,000 graduating students on Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich.

While continuing his attacks on Sokha – whom he vowed would not receive a pardon – he also threatened to dissolve the opposition, noting that CNRP was not the only party competing next July. “If the party continues to protect and defend this national traitor, it means this party has already committed treason, so there is no time to keep this party to operate in Cambodia’s democracy,” the premier said.

CNRP lawmakers on their way to meet their detained leader Kem Sokha yesterday at Correctional Centre 3 in Tbong Khmum province.
CNRP lawmakers on their way to meet their detained leader Kem Sokha yesterday at Correctional Centre 3 in Tbong Khmum province. Hong Menea

“Cambodia dissolves one political party, but there are many other parties to participate in the election.”

Similar sentiments were expressed yesterday by Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak as well as National Election Committee member Hang Puthea.

Speaking on the phone, Sopheak said the opposition’s dissolution would not undermine Cambodia’s democracy, even suggesting the CNRP could revert to its previous factions – Sam Rainsy’s now-defunct Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party – and still compete.

The SRP, which still exists in the Senate, was forced to change its name to the “Candlelight Party” after controversial July amendments to the Law on Political Parties were rammed through by the CPP to sideline opposition mainstay Rainsy. The HRP, meanwhile, no longer has any representatives at the local or parliamentary level.

NEC spokesman Puthea also chimed in on the matter, telling government mouthpiece Fresh News a CNRP boycott would be “no problem” as other parties could still participate. The CNRP captured nearly half of the popular vote in the 2013 national election – no other party came close to winning even a single seat.

Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University, said the emphasis on the number of parties, rather than the vote share, was “cynical but clever”, though unlikely to persuade many.

“An easy argument can be made that, regardless of who participates, the 2018 elections will lack legitimacy due to inherent problems of freedom and fairness. This has been the case for every election since 1998,” he said via email.

During the speech yesterday, the premier also called out another CNRP lawmaker, later identified as Ho Vann, whom he accused of “handing out bread” to workers striking during infamous demonstrations on Phnom Penh’s Veng Sreng Boulevard.

The strikes – borne out of dissatisfaction with 2013’s new minimum wage – turned fatal in January of 2014 when security forces shot dead at least four people, with a fifth missing and presumed dead.

The demonstrations were on Sunday characterised by Hun Sen as part of the purported conspiracy to topple his government, something he vowed to further investigate.

“If the whole party was involved, it is clear the party must be dissolved. [This is] an act of conspiracy, treason and betrayal of the country,” he said, according to a video clip posted to Fresh News.

Yesterday the premier said Vann had fled to Thailand, though the CNRP lawmaker later told The Post he was receiving medical treatment and had left of his own accord.

Lawmakers raise their hands in agreement during the National Assembly session yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Lawmakers raise their hands in agreement during the National Assembly session yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

Hun Sen also claimed CPP lawmakers were within their rights to approve the case against Sokha, whom he called a national traitor. “I would like to clarify that the meeting at the parliament this morning was not to strip immunity but . . . to pave the way for [the case],” he said.

“If you want to hold back the case, for it not to proceed, you need three-quarters of the voices [votes]. Red-handed crimes do not require us to strip immunity, but [allow us] to arrest immediately and report to parliament.”

The CPP has long been accused of abusing the constitutional clause regarding in flagrante delicto offences – often referred to as “red-handed crimes” – which allows police to arrest lawmakers caught in the act of committing a crime despite their legal immunity.

Despite the opposition leader being at home when he was seized, officials claimed the crime fit the category because a video of Sokha saying he received US support for his political career remained accessible online.

The same justification was used in the arrests of opposition lawmakers Um Sam An and Hong Sok Hour over critical comments about Cambodia’s handling of border issues with Vietnam.

As in those cases, which were also widely condemned as politically motivated, CPP lawmakers and Hun Sen yesterday appeared to ignore the fourth paragraph of Article 80, which covers parliamentary immunity.

The paragraph states that a decision on the case must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the assembly, which the CPP lacks.

Reporting by Niem Chheng, Mech Dara, Leonie Kijewski, Shaun Turton and Meas Sokchea

MOST VIEWED

  • Ministry requests school opening

    The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport on Thursday said it would request a decision from Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow a small number of schools to reopen next month. Ministry spokesman Ros Soveacha said if the request is granted, higher-standard schools will reopen

  • Kingdom eyes India FTA, China deal set for August

    Cambodia is studying the possibility of establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with India to open a new market with the second-largest regional economy. This comes as an FTA with China is scheduled to be signed next month while similar negotiations with South Korea

  • Judge lands in court after crashing into alleged thief

    Sen Sok district police on Thursday sent a Koh Kong Provincial Court judge to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on manslaughter charges after he crashed his car into a woman riding a motorbike on Wednesday, killing her. District police chief Hour Meng Vang told The

  • Preah Vihear court drops charges against villagers

    The Preah Vihear Provincial Court has dropped all charges against eight ethnic Kuoy villagers who were in a land dispute with the Hengfu Group Sugar Industry Co Ltd since 2014. Wednesday’s decision was made by the judge who tried the case on June 10. The eight

  • Gov’t to boost Siem Reap tourism

    The Ministry of Tourism released the results of an inter-ministerial committee meeting concerning Siem Reap province’s Tourism Development Master Plan for 2020-2035 on Wednesday, revealing the government’s plan to improve the overall tourist landscape there. The meeting was attended by Minister of Tourism

  • Residents ordered to remove structures on Phnom Penh’s canal

    Phnom Penh municipal governor Khuong Sreng has ordered authorities to act against the perpetrators who built houses along the Luo 5 canal in Meanchey district. The municipal administration plans to create a committee to solve the matter. The order was given on Wednesday while Sreng led

  • ‘On the offensive’: Cambodia to load up on loans to stimulate economy

    As the dust settles on the economy, Cambodia comes to grips with what needs to be done to turn the economy around, starting with a big shopping list for credit ‘We are going on the offensive,” Vongsey Vissoth, Ministry of Economy and Finance permanent secretary

  • Eighty replacement peacekeepers set for Mali mission despite Covid

    Eighty Cambodian blue helmet soldiers who completed the peacekeeping mission under the UN umbrella in Mali will return to Cambodia on Friday, said the Centre for Peacekeeping Forces spokeswoman Kosal Malida. “To protect their families and communities from the Covid-19 pandemic, the 80 are required to

  • Government set to make up for cancelled April holiday

    The government is set to make up for a five-day Khmer New Year holiday late this month or early next month. The holiday was earlier cancelled due to the onset of Covid-19. The announcement is expected on Friday as the government is studying a range

  • Families told to register for cash handouts

    The government has called on poor families to apply to commune authorities for evaluation to receive financial support during the Covid-19 crisis. A $300 million budget has been planned for implementation within a year. Ministry of Economy and Finance secretary of state Vongsey Visoth said this