Opposition leader Sam Rainsy is scheduled to return to Phnom Penh tonight where he could face arrest and a two-year prison sentence over a defamation case dating back to 2008, his party said yesterday.
Eng Chhay Eang, a spokesman of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, said yesterday evening that Rainsy – who has been visiting supporters in South Korea – will arrive at Phnom Penh International Airport at around 10:30pm on a Korean Air flight.
According to the airport’s arrival schedule, the flight is due to land at 10:20pm.
Chhay Eang said that when he touches down, Rainsy plans to ask authorities not to arrest him but to let him negotiate with Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
The party had said earlier in the day that Rainsy would be flying into Siem Reap International Airport.
With Rainsy’s scheduled return, Chhay Eang said the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers had been banned from travelling outside of the capital, unless they had “urgent obligations” they had to attend to.
“All of them must stay together in Phnom Penh, first for safety [in case] a bad incident takes place, [and] second to join any urgent decision-making,” he said.
On Friday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued an arrest warrant for the opposition leader stemming from a defamation and incitement case brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
Addressing hundreds of Cambodians in South Korea on Saturday, Rainsy said that he would return to Cambodia despite the warrant.
“Cambodia is my homeland – I absolutely must go back and go to rescue our nation. So there is no change in my plan. If I must die, let it be”, he said.
Friday’s warrant came less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen posted a video on Facebook threatening Rainsy with legal action following comments by the opposition leader that the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy Party in Myanmar foreshadowed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own downfall in the 2018 national election.
In posts on his Facebook page over the weekend, Rainsy continued to draw comparisons between the two countries.
“The most recent developments in Cambodia, including the arrest warrant against me as opposition leader, show that the historic resounding election victory of the democratic opposition in Myanmar has created panic among the last surviving dictators in our part of the world.
But the wind of freedom that is blowing throughout the world will also reach Cambodia in the very near future,” he wrote on Saturday.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak and National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith could not be reached yesterday to comment on whether Rainsy would be arrested when he lands in Phnom Penh.
Thorng Sabun, deputy chief of Siem Reap provincial police, said he had not received any orders to arrest the opposition leader if he does land there, as previously suggested. He said such orders would need to come from the “top level”.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan suggested that further orders were not needed.
“Relevant authorities have to comply and obey the [existing] order from the court,” he said.
As Rainsy reportedly prepared to return, rights groups and diplomats called for the case against him to be dropped.
Mark Toner, deputy spokesman of the US Department of State, on Friday told reporters in Washington that the US was “deeply concerned about the deteriorating political climate in Cambodia in recent weeks.
“The timing of these charges gives the appearance of undue political influence in the judicial process.
More broadly, the pattern of actions against the opposition suggests a return to the harsh political practices and tactics . . . that the Cambodian people have made clear they no longer want,” he said, also referring to the recent beating of two opposition lawmakers.
“We’re obviously monitoring the situation closely and calling on the Cambodian authorities to drop the charges against Sam Rainsy.”
On Saturday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement saying the arrest warrant “fundamentally threatens rights [and] democracy”.
“The actions against Sam Rainsy again expose the absurdity of Cambodia’s legal system, which seems to serve as little more than Hun Sen’s tool to maintain power,” said HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams.
“His persecution of those peacefully challenging his authoritarian rule appears boundless. Donors should step in now to say there are bounds.”
Independent analyst Ou Virak said Rainsy’s return would in fact be a “lose-lose” scenario for the government, which would risk making the opposition leader into a martyr if he went to jail, or making strongman Hun Sen look weak if the warrant was rescinded.
But he said he would “be surprised” if Rainsy – who has previously spent years in self-imposed exile in France to evade prison-time – actually returns as promised.
“It could be very, very interesting if that happens.”