The government has warned it will take legal action against the opposition party if a threatened mass demonstration results in violence or destruction.
In a letter sent yesterday to Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said leaders would be held personally liable.
“In the case of holding a demonstration that causes violence, destruction of national security, destruction of public property or [destruction of] privacy and public order, the leaders of the demonstration and perpetrators must be responsible before the law for other consequences taking place from this demonstration,” Kheng wrote.
“The leaders of [the] demonstration and demonstrators must respect the laws on peaceful demonstration,” the letter noted.
Though Kheng stressed that the government respects the constitutional right of people to protest, CNRP officials said there was little doubt the words were meant as a threat.
Just two days before the letter was sent, Rainsy vowed mass demonstrations if final election results don’t reflect a CNRP win. The government, in turn, has said it might view such protests as “rebellion”.
CNRP acting president Kem Sokha and other party members stressed yesterday that demonstrations were a last resort. They would be called for, he said, only if there is no reasonable investigation into the election irregularities.
“If anything happens, the government must be the first one responsible. We have seen in demonstrations across the country, if the government doesn’t provoke, there are no problems.”
“Threats and intimidation cannot solve the problem,” echoed spokesman Yim Sovann, who called demonstrations “the last choice”.
“Anyone who does anything against the law has to be held responsible,” he said. “But the Ministry of Interior must be responsible as well. The party organises a peaceful demonstration. We respect the law, we follow it.... Mr Sar Kheng should read the demonstration law again.”
Freedom of assembly is enshrined in the constitution, while a separate demonstration law governs how protests can be carried out.
“The state has an obligation to protect [the demonstrators],” Cambodian Defenders Project executive director Sok Sam Oeun said.
“I want the government officials, especially the law enforcement officials, to understand and support the right to demonstrate. It’s the obligation of the state to facilitate demonstration.”
While Sam Oeun insisted the legal grounds were scant for holding leaders of a peaceful protest responsible for an individual’s action, the provision that addresses the possibility is worrisomely vague, others have noted.
Article 26 of the Law on Peaceful Assembly notes that damages are “the responsibility of the offender(s) and the accomplices”.
In a legal analysis issued by the International Federation of Human Rights in October 2009, shortly after the law was passed, the group notes that “accomplices” could be broadly interpreted.
“One may only hope that the organisers of the demonstrations will not be a ... target of criminal suits,” it said.