Opposition leader Sam Rainsy faces arrest, his supporters warn, after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court requested that the National Assembly strip Rainsy of his parliamentary immunity.
The move comes as the court is preparing to investigate Rainsy on charges of defamation and disinformation, allegations made by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
Sam Rainsy Party officials called the request an attempt by their main rival, the Cambodian People's Party, to force Rainsy to flee the country ahead of the July 27 general election.
Speaking to the Post on June 18 from Kompong Speu province, Rainsy said the ruling party hopes that by portraying him as a criminal, it can deflect attention away from its own shortcomings as polling day approaches.
"The CPP is not able to solve the issues that affect the country and make people miserable. Land grabbing, inflation – the CPP cannot solve these problems so they try to divert public attention with these tricks," Rainsy said June 18.
In a letter issued to National Assembly President Heng Samrin on June 16, the court’s chief prosecutor, Ouk Savuth, and deputy prosecutor, Ek Chheng Huot, asked the Assembly to "temporarily suspend the immunity of Sam Rainsy," saying that the court had collected enough evidence to warrant further investigation into accusations of defamation leveled against Sam Rainsy by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
Chheng Huot confirmed he made the request but offered no further comment.
The National Assembly is not currently in session. It is not expected to meet again until after the election in July. Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said that convening parliament to debate Rainsy's immunity would be "highly unusual," and such a move would likely indicate a larger political conspiracy.
Namhong’s allegations stem from an April 17 speech made by Sam Rainsy in which Rainsy accused Namhong of directing the Khmer Rouge’s Boeng Trabek prison, a detention center for intellectuals and members of the royal family.
Namhong has said repeatedly 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.
"Hor Namhong filed a complaint against Sam Rainsy for defamation and disinformation on April 22," said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Post on June 17.
"The court has investigated the case and collected evidence that Sam Rainsy is suspected of defamation and disinformation," the letter said.
The court request follows the week-long detention of opposition
newspaper editor Dam Sith, who was jailed last week for quoting
Rainsy’s allegations in the newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer. Sith was
released June 15 pending trial.
Opposition party members fear the court's request is a prelude to Rainsy's arrest.
"We are preparing for the worst, which is that he will have to go to Prey Sar [prison]," said Sam Rainsy Party Deputy Secretary General Mu Sochua.
"If Rainsy has to go to jail, Rainsy will go to jail. But we are strong," she said.
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 said the ruling CPP is still trying to shut him down.
"I am used to this kind of harassment – I know the ruling party is trying to stop my activities. They are very concerned ... they want to threaten me to push me out of the country," he said, dismissing the upcoming polls as "meaningless" in the face of the CPP's political maneuvering.
"They have secured victory even before voting day, as they have harmed the opposition. They're using the courts, fake witnesses, fake evidence, to crack down on the opposition," Rainsy said, referring to recent statements by Hun Sen that an opposition party defector has accused Rainsy of involvement in a number of violent plots, including a 1998 attempt on the prime minister's life.
"This election is not a real election; it is just a facade of election -- a travesty," he said. "Now they want to silence the opposition altogether by arresting the leader of the opposition."
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)