Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana addressed empty opposition benches at the National Assembly yesterday as the Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers boycotted the question-and-answer session that they themselves requested.
The CNRP in May asked to quiz the minister about alleged misuse of the judiciary to target opposition lawmakers and jailed human rights activists.
However, the opposition party earlier this week decided to boycott Vathana’s appearance, citing the escalating political crisis in the country. The National Assembly’s permanent committee rejected a request for it to be postponed.
Vathana, in the presence of 59 ruling party lawmakers, started his response by calling the opposition’s boycott of the session “irresponsible”.
Referring to the cases of jailed CNRP lawmakers and rights activists, Vathana said investigating judges at all levels of the judiciary were empowered by the Criminal Code to detain individuals to further investigate their cases.
“But the justice minister does not have right to interfere into decisions in the process of a judge’s case,” Vathana said.
Over the next 20 minutes, Vathana explained the intricacies of the criminal procedure code and his own powers to order investigations but did not discuss any particular case.
Following his answers there were no questions asked by the CPP lawmakers present in parliament, with senior CPP lawmakers Cheam Yeap and Chheang Vun instead taking the opportunity to attack the opposition.
“This [boycott] is a habit of the opposition party. Their habit is to sometimes walk out when a minister is answering,” Vun said.
Both then proceeded to dismiss the CNRP’s claims that parliamentary immunity was not being respected by echoing the ruling party’s stance that the lawmakers had been caught red-handed abusing the law – a reference to a constitutional loophole that some have suggested has been misused in the recent cases.
After the session, CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said he hadn’t had a chance to look at Vathana’s responses but did not accept the minister’s allegation that the opposition was being “irresponsible” by boycotting the session.
“It is not responsible for him to come [to parliament] when we have informed him in advance that we won’t be attending,” Chhay said.
He added that the CNRP had detailed evidence that the courts and law enforcement institutions were being used to target lawmakers and would either send a written response to the government or request another session with Vathana.
Political analyst Chea Vannath said the CNRP’s decision to boycott the session could be partly put down to the multiple occasions in the past that such sessions had yielded little results.
However, she added, “Maybe the CNRP should have gone to the session because they requested it and should be accountable [for that].”
She said that even if the government’s claim that law enforcement institutions followed the law were true, the public perception was the not the same.
“In the current atmosphere, I feel that they need to pay more attention to the perception [of their actions],” she added. “The public are having a hard time understanding why this is happening.”