Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have been summonsed to appear at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning in the wake of a weekend that saw their occupation of Freedom Park end with the abrupt, violent eviction of scores of demonstrators.
In a summons dated Friday and issued on Saturday, the court called on the two Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders to submit to questioning on January 14 for having allegedly incited striking garment workers to commit a crime and disrupt social order.
Rainsy said he would face the questioning head-on.
“We don’t care. The court summoned Kem Sokha and I to answer questions, so we will go – both of us. We will go to respond to any questions from the prosecutor,” he told reporters yesterday at the CNRP’s headquarters. “It will be an opportunity for us to expose the truth.”
The questioning won’t be the first brush with the court for the two.
Sokha served several weeks in prison on defamation charges before receiving a Royal pardon in early 2006, while Rainsy fled the country in 2009 after being handed a series of charges related to uprooting markers along the Vietnamese border – charges many observers say were politically motivated – and remained in self-imposed exile until July last year.
In a telephone interview, Rainsy said yesterday that the situation now is “definitely” reminiscent of 2009, and characterised the summons as “another attempt by the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party] to eliminate me from the political scene”.
But unlike 2009, he continued, even if the case went to trial and he was convicted of incitement, he would stay and face the sentence.
“The situation is much different from the one prevailing five years ago in that the opposition is much stronger now,” Rainsy said, maintaining that the CPP needed the opposition’s implicit approval of last year’s election.
“They want to negotiate, they want us to sit in the National Assembly, they want us to endorse the result of the last election,” he said. “The government already has problems of legitimacy. If they put the two opposition leaders in jail, they would look worse.…They would lose any credibility.”
Political analyst Chea Vannath agreed that fleeing the charges again would be the wrong move politically.
“I think that he will face a lack of confidence from his supporters if he goes into exile again,” she said. “Maybe he prefers to face the court rather than run away from the country, because in the past [there was] a lot of criticism about him leaving the country, rather than facing the hardship in Cambodia … so I don’t think he’ll do that again.”
Even last night, though, rumours still swirled that the two leaders were planning to leave the country – rumours that Rainsy dismissed, saying he “intend[s] to stay and to fight back peacefully”.
CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, meanwhile, called the summons “the same trick” as the one used against her when she was stripped of her parliamentary immunity and sued by Prime Minister Hun Sen for defamation in 2009.
“As far as the court is concerned, it’s crystal clear,” she said. “He is using the court to silence us. This is a political case, and this is a challenge to the international community” to confront the regime, she added.
However, legal expert Sok Sam Oeun yesterday questioned whether the charges would hold.
“If they base [the charges] on the demonstration organised by the two of them, then I don’t think that this is grounds for incitement,” he said, maintaining that the charge was too vague. “If it’s [incitement] to commit a crime, what crime? Killing? Robbery? Murder?”
Though dated the day before the eviction from Freedom Park, the summons wasn’t made public until well after the square had been brutally cleared. In the morning, military police in full riot gear descended on the park and – with the help of plainclothes thugs wielding makeshift truncheons and wearing red armbands – scattered protesters and beat stragglers.
Yeng Virak, the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, and who was arrested concurrently alongside Sokha in the defamation case, said the sweeping of Freedom Park was yet another example of “jungle law”.
“Can we say the country has laws? What laws do they enforce?” he asked.
“Every day they enforce the law of the jungle. Whoever is strong, that one wins.”
The action came after a letter from City Hall to Rainsy informing him that the opposition would no longer be allowed to hold demonstrations due to recent violence, despite the fact that opposition protests had been studiously non-violent.
City Hall, however, conflated the CNRP’s demonstrations with a violent garment worker protest on Friday in which at least four protesters were shot dead by military police.
Though the protest was not officially affiliated with the opposition, the CNRP had sought to bring protesting garment workers into its fold in recent days, a gambit that political analyst Kem Ley said had been “high-risk”.
Nonetheless, he said, the association with workers had been the right move.
“It is not a mistake, because everybody can help,” Ley said.
“When the garment workers are suffering from the low wage, everybody must help to advocate.”
Rainsy too defended the decision to link his movement with that of the garment workers, calling it a “matter of principle”.