Citing a seven-year-old defamation case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday issued an arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy, forcing the travelling Cambodia National Rescue Party president to choose whether to stay abroad or return and face a two-year prison term.
The warrant, stemming from a defamation and incitement case brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008, came less than 24 hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen posted a video on Facebook threatening the opposition leader with legal action.
In the post on Thursday, the premier blasted Rainsy – who is due to meet supporters in South Korea this weekend and was scheduled to return Monday – for saying the success of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the recent Myanmar elections foreshadows the ruling Cambodian People’s Party's own demise in the coming 2018 ballot.
Hun Sen also said Rainsy could face legal action for telling an audience in Japan on Tuesday that the CPP wanted to avoid elections in 2018 and noted the CNRP leader had fled charges in the past.
“Before, you always escaped from the country, and I asked for pardons to be granted for [Rainsy] two times already. This time, I hope that His Excellency will not be able to escape,” the premier said.
Analysts said yesterday it appeared Hun Sen was completely “fed up” and wanted to sideline the opposition leader, who now faced “a moment of truth” as to whether he would return to Cambodia rather than once again go into self-imposed exile.
But government spokesman Phay Siphan said the warrant had “nothing to do” with the prime minister, or politics, and was a “personal matter”.
Namhong sued Rainsy over comments made during a memorial service at the Choeung Ek Genocide Center alleging Namhong, also a deputy prime minister, ran the Boeung Trabek prison under the Khmer Rouge.
In 2011, Rainsy was convicted in absentia on the charges, sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a $2,000 fine.
At the time, Rainsy, who also holds French citizenship, was in self-imposed exile in France and was also facing another 12-year sentence stemming from two cases related to pulling out border markers on the Vietnam border in 2009 and publishing maps he claims backed up allegations of Vietnamese territorial encroachment.
After four years abroad, Rainsy was granted a Royal Pardon by King Sihamoni in 2013, allowing him to return in time for the election.
But Siphan said yesterday that the pardon did not cover Namhong’s case, which was also heard in a French civil court, where Rainsy won on appeal.
He added that Rainsy’s parliamentary immunity did not extend to the time of the offence.
According to the warrant, signed by deputy Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Seu Vanny, Namhong’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, yesterday requested the court enforce the case’s final verdict, which was upheld by the Appeal Court in 2013.
“After examination … it is decided to firstly arrest Sam Rainsy under the power of the definitive verdict … dated 12 March 2013 of the Appeal Court, secondly, order the public forces to search for, arrest and bring inmate, namely Sam Rainsy, to serve the prison term at the Interior Ministry’s prison,” the document reads.
Contacted yesterday, Savuth said he was busy and hung up on a Post reporter.
Rainsy – who also spent more than a year abroad after being charged with defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2005 – did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
CNRP spokesman Eng Chhay Eang slammed the warrant as a “joke” but would only say his leader “could return”.
“The ruling party leader is again and again cracking down on our party but, in return, it makes our party gain more support, grow stronger and sees our members unite more and more,” Chhay Eang said.
Yesterday, political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak called the warrant a predictable ploy by the premier in his bid to stifle the opposition’s electoral chances, but one which could backfire by providing Rainsy with an opportunity to follow the example of Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent 15 years under house arrest imposed by the country’s military junta.
“If this court warrant could speak it would say: ‘You compare yourself to Aung San Suu Kyi, you compare CNRP to NLD, you compare the situation of the election in both [countries], so now what? Are you going to come back or not? Are you going to use your French passport and just stay outside and seek self-exile?,’” Sopheak said.
“It’s a moment of truth not only for the CNRP or for Sam Rainy, but for a lot of people. The international community is also tested now, and the people, the supporters of Sam Rainsy.”
Markus Karbaum, an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics, said the premier’s move against Rainsy could hurt him both domestically and internationally.
“Hun Sen wants to keep Sam Rainsy out of the game because he is chanceless when competing with the opposition leader in genuine free and fair elections, but he apparently does not dare to arrest him,” Karbaum said via email.
“That puts the opposition leader in a very strong position: When he returns, Hun Sen must arrest Rainsy, otherwise he runs the risk to lose his image as Cambodia’s strongman.
“In this case, the prime minister falls into his own trap, because this move will mobilise many opposition followers making unrest and utmost confrontation with security forces very likely.”
Political analyst Ou Virak said pressuring Rainsy into self-exile had “worked magic in the past” for the CPP and was part of a “broader strategy” to halt the opposition’s momentum ahead of commune elections in 2017 and the national ballot the following year.
But actually arresting the opposition leader, Virak said, would turn him into “a symbol of resistance”.
“The opposition was paralysed during his [previous] absence … if he wants the people to protest, he needs to come back.”