THE National Assembly voted to remove the parliamentary immunity of two opposition lawmakers at a closed session Monday, with human rights groups describing the move as a "significant blow" to freedom of expression in Cambodia.
In a single raised-hand vote, the CPP-dominated parliament stripped Sam Rainsy Party MPs Mu Sochua and Ho Vann of their immunity, allowing defamation lawsuits filed against them by senior government officials to proceed.
Twenty SRP lawmakers walked out in protest prior to the vote, which saw 90 out of the 91 MPs present approve the suspension of Mu Sochua's immunity and all 91 approve the same for Ho Vann. But the opposition remained defiant, emerging from the session wearing surgical masks to symbolise the loss of freedom of expression.
"[The CPP lawmakers] lifted their hand without thinking about the country's interests," Mu Sochua said. "They were only thinking of the party's interests - to defend Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose comments have seriously affected my reputation as a people's representative. Is this a national parliament or the CPP's parliament?"
Mu Sochua sued Hun Sen for remarks he made during a speech in Kampot province in April, a case that was dismissed by Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 10. Without her constitutional immunity, she now faces a defamation countersuit from the prime minister.
During a school inauguration in Kandal province Monday, Hun Sen said that the Assembly's vote was designed to strengthen democracy and the rule of law and warned foreigners not to interfere.
"The lifting of their immunity is designed to strengthen the rule of law. If we don't strengthen democracy, things will fall into anarchy," he said.
Abuses of power
But Monday's vote, closed to observers, has prompted a chorus of criticism from local and international rights groups.
"The manner in which the lifting of the two SRP MPs' immunity was conducted this morning leaves no doubt that the government understands that this process was unfair," nine local civil society groups said in a joint statement Monday.
The statement also noted that the decision to include Ho Vann's immunity in the vote was made "in secret" and was only known minutes beforehand.
Ho Vann, who has been sued for defamation and disinformation by 22 senior army officials after he said he was misquoted in a local newspaper, said he had no forewarning of what would happen at the session.
"I did not know my immunity would be lifted at all. I have already corrected what was issued by the newspaper, and the prosecutor also recognised it, so I thought my case could be dropped," he said.
International observers were also taken aback that they were refused entry to the session.
"We were surprised and disappointed," Elizabeth Evans, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy in Phnom Penh, said outside the parliament.
"We don't understand why access was denied - we normally monitor the workings of the National Assembly and this is of interest to us."
Basil Fernando, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission, said that Monday's vote, by undercutting basic democratic principles, had paralysed Cambodia's democratic development.
"Cambodia's democracy requires freedom of speech - at least for those in parliament," he said by phone.
"[Monday's vote] means that you can muster a majority and deprive lawmakers of basic freedoms. But a lawmaker should not be dictated to by any majority, only by the people that elected them. That is the very basis on which parliament should function."
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the loss of immunity paralleled a similar situation in 2005, when the National Assembly stripped Sam Rainsy and SRP parliamentarians Cheam Channy and Chea Poch of their immunity.
Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch then fled overseas, and Cheam Channy was jailed on charges of attempting to plot a coup.
"In 2005, it happened the same way. Sam Rainsy and two other parliamentarians' immunity were lifted, and Sam Rainsy left the country and went into exile," he said.
"It's history repeating itself."
Ou Virak expressed hopes that, as with after the 2005 crackdown, things would improve, but said it was difficult to know how far the situation would deteriorate before the tide turned.
"Things will hopefully go back to normal, but the question is when [the situation] will reach its lowest point," he said.