Two months after the anonymous release of taped phone conversations purportedly between acting CNRP president Kem Sokha and an alleged mistress, the deputy opposition leader has been summonsed to appear at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, along with two other CNRP lawmakers.
Deputy prosecutor for the case Keo Socheat yesterday confirmed a summons for May 11 had been issued in relation to a $1 million defamation case brought by social media celebrity Thy Sovantha but declined to answer further questions.
“I do not want to talk about the summons, but it has been sent to the individual already via the police,” he said.
Sokha, who could not be reached for comment yesterday, is being sued by Sovantha for allegedly disparaging her in one of the purported conversations between himself and salon worker Khom Chandaraty.
CNRP lawmakers Tok Vanchan and Pin Ratana were also yesterday summonsed by the deputy prosecutor to appear on May 16 for questioning “related to prostitution”.
The two were named by Chandaraty in her testimony when she identified herself and Sokha as the two individuals on the audio recordings.
Vanchan and Ratana were identified as the men who had taken her to meet Sokha in Bangkok on two separate occasions, according to local news website Fresh News. The two lawmakers could not be reached for comment yesterday.
All three men are ostensibly protected by parliamentary immunity, though lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, former head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the court’s actions suggested their immunity as lawmakers simply no longer existed.
“Immunity can either be priceless or meaningless, and in the constitution, immunity is meant for protection,” he said. “When a lawmaker can be summonsed or arrested at any time, it may make them fearful and may dare not express their ideas.”
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long yesterday said it was up to the court to ask the parliament via the Ministry of Justice to lift immunity, and in the case of a summons, an appearance remained at the lawmakers’ discretion.
Sovantha, for her part, questioned why it had taken this long to summons Sokha, given that Chandararty had already testified twice and she herself once.
“He should have been [summonsed] last month,” she said.
CNRP senior whip Son Chhay said while Sokha had not shied away from appearing in court in the past, he couldn’t predict if Sokha would attend this time around.
“[There is] no doubt that, if this is an appropriate case, he may [appear], but you cannot just do anything to a member of parliament who has immunity,” he said.
In a statement released yesterday before news of the fresh summonses emerged, CNRP lawmakers condemned Monday’s charging of five rights workers and National Election Committee (NEC) official Ny Chakrya in relation to the case, asking the court to drop the charges unconditionally.
“We call on the international community and donors to intervene and get the government to stop its intimidation, threats and harassment of the opposition, NGOs and human rights defenders,” the statement said.
The lawmakers also called for the release of their colleagues Hong Sok Hour and Um Sam An, jailed on treason and incitement charges, respectively, over their public condemnation of the government’s handling of border issues with Vietnam.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea yesterday said that while the body could not interfere in the proceedings, it would monitor the court’s actions and attempt to visit Chakrya soon.
Several more international rights groups, meanwhile, joined the chorus condemning the case, with Transparency International saying it was seriously concerned about the allegations of political interference and intimidation of human rights activists.
“The Anti-Corruption Unit should not be used in such a way that intimidates and silences the voice of civil society activists,” said Elena Panfilova, vice-chair of Transparency International, whose local arm has a working relationship with the ACU.
Human Rights Watch called the case a campaign to curtail domestic and international human rights monitoring in Cambodia.
“No one should mistake these prosecutions for anything other than Prime Minister Hun Sen’s effort to undo decades of work by Cambodian groups and the UN to promote the human rights of all Cambodians,” said HRW Asia director Brad Adams.