The Cambodia National Rescue Party and a major trade union will stage a mass protest if the opposition’s acting president Kem Sokha is arrested, the groups threatened today, following attempts by armed police on Thursday to detain the embattled lawmaker, who has been charged for ignoring a court summons.
The threat of protests came as it emerged that Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s head prosecutor, Yet Chakrya, had written to National Assembly President Heng Samrin to declare Sokha had been charged with committing a “flagrant crime” by failing to appear for questioning yesterday.
In a statement released after a party meeting this morning, the CNRP said its permanent committee will now encourage its local leaders to travel to Phnom Penh and petition the King to condemn the action against Sokha and stands ready to further mobilise supporters for a mass rally should he be taken into custody.
“After having discussed thoroughly, the permanent committee sees that the Cambodian political situation is getting worse and worse,” it reads.
“The permanent committee has decided to allow local party leaders of all cities and provinces to march a petition to Phnom Penh to hand to the King.
“The party will use its rights to hold a mass demonstration in the case that Kem Sokha, the acting president of the CNRP, is arrested.
“[The party] will continue to use the culture of dialogue as a basis to restore the political situation to normal in order to guarantee elections in 2017 and 2018 are free, fair and just.”
Soon after, president of the Free Trade Union Chea Mony also issued a statement, saying the group would call a strike if Sokha was arrested.
In response, social media celebrity Thy Sovantha – who has filed a separate but related defamation suit against Sokha – threatened to organise a counter demonstration against the protesters.
The CNRP leader, who party officials say is in a “safe place”, is being sought by police for ignoring a court summons on Thursday related to an allegation of procuring a prostitute.
The allegation – which has also been leveled at two other CNRP lawmakers – is among a slew of questionable legal cases connected to a “sex scandal” surrounding Sokha, which emerged by way of covertly-recorded phone recordings that purportedly feature the politician talking intimately with mistresses.
Many say the ruling party is using the scandal – zealously investigated by the Anti-Corruption Unit – as a thin veil to crack down on its political opponents and silence its critics.
Armed officers on Thursday surrounded CNRP headquarters in an attempt to arrest the politician but left after being asked for a warrant. Police also stopped Sokha’s car on Norodom Boulevard, but the lawmaker was not inside.
Following the police action, the case’s prosecutor, Sieng Sok, issued a statement declaring that Sokha had committed a flagrant offence by not showing up to court, which meant police officers could ignore his parliamentary immunity.
According to Cambodian law, lawmakers, who enjoy parliamentary immunity, can only be arrested if they are caught “in flagrante delicto,” or red-handed, committing a crime.
The government has adopted a broad interpretation of the clause, which it has used a justification for detaining two opposition lawmakers in the past year.
In a joint letter to parliamentary president Heng Samrin, who received it today, prosecutor Sok and his boss Yet Chakrya said a criminal case involving a “flagrant” offense had been forwarded by police to the court, which had then ordered Sokha’s arrest.
“The Phnom Penh municipal prosecutor requested that judicial police seek and arrest His Excellency Kem Sokha to appear in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor in the framework of a red-handed crime,” they wrote.
“The Phnom Penh municipal prosecutor decided to charge His Excellency Kem Sokha with ‘Refusal to Appear’ under Article 538 of the Cambodia criminal code and send the case to the investigating judge to continue the legal procedure.”
According to the provision, witnesses who refuse to appear when summonsed by judicial authorities can face a jail sentence of between one and six months and a maximum fine of $250.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin confirmed the opposition leader had been charged for missing the hearing and placed under court supervision, meaning he could not leave the country.
Malin called Sokha’s decision to ignore the summons a “political mistake”.
Parliament spokesman Leng Peng Long said the National Assembly would now vote on whether to allow the case to proceed.
“The National Assembly will now implement Article 80… in the case of the court arresting or detaining an assembly member it has to make a report to the National Assembly in order for the assembly to make a decision to continue the case or suspend it,” Peng Long said.
“The National Assembly needs three-quarters of the lawmakers to vote if they want to suspend it.”
Reached today, spokesman Yim Sovann said he could not predict the amount of people the opposition could mobilise if Sokha was seized, though said they wanted something similar to the mass demonstrations that followed the 2013 election, when hundreds of thousands marched into the capital to protest against the government.
“A mass demonstration is the last choice, since October last year, we have become the victims, we are suffering a lot, so we have no choice,” Sovann said.
“The demonstration, if organised, will be peaceful. What else can we do, I want to ask the stakeholders, what else can we do? Please tell us.”
Asked how the state’s security forces would respond to a mass demonstration, spokesman for the Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he did not want to use the media “as a forum” to discuss the issue, though added that any response would be legal.
“Everything will be implemented in compliance with the law – arresting or demonstration – it has to comply with the law; Cambodia has the law.”