Death Knell for Democracy
Attacks on Lawmakers and the Threat to Cambodia's Institutions
In February 2017, Cambodia’s Parliament approved a set of new amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which grant unprecedented powers to the executive and judicial branches to suspend and dissolve parties. The move marked a culmination of nearly two years of escalating persecution of Cambodian lawmakers. These attacks have come in the context of a renewed, broader crackdown on dissent, which has targeted nearly all segments of Cambodian civic life, as well as similar growing threats to other legislators across Southeast Asia.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the ruling party’s efforts to cripple the opposition, in advance of critical commune-level and national elections in 2017 and 2018 respectively, are undermining the fundamental functions and institutions of democratic governance. Addressing persecution and threats against lawmakers, including through revision and clarification of relevant statutes and efforts to ensure all actors adhere to the law, must therefore be a priority for all parties interested in stability, prosperity, and accountability in Cambodia.
An Analysis of Parliamentary Immunity
Over the past several years, the issue of parliamentary immunity has increasingly been discussed in Cambodia in the context of the rights and privileges of Members of Parliament, and particularly those of the opposition. Cambodian lawmakers are afforded parliamentary immunity in the country’s Constitution, as well as other statutes, but this immunity has been lifted seemingly without justification and without adherence to the legislation and regulations that govern it. This Legal Analysis presents a review of Cambodian legal provisions on parliamentary immunity and highlights the particularly problematic and vague aspects of these provisions.
This Annex includes individual case timelines of lawmakers referenced in the report. The timelines can be downloaded as a single document (Annex II) or as individual case files, by clicking on the links below.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) Senator Hong Sok Hour was charged in August 2015 with forgery and incitement under the Criminal Code for a video he posted on Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page. The video included Khmer-language text he alleged to be Article 4 of a 1979 treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam, which said that the two countries had agreed to dissolve the border. Since this version of the article was fake (the real version makes no mention of dissolving the border), Hong Sok Hour was tried for forgery of public documents, as well as incitement. As a Senator, his arrest was based on the authorities’ argument that he was caught “in flagrante delicto” (in the act of committing a crime) and the Senate therefore lifted his parliamentary immunity. On 7 November 2016, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) MP Um Sam An was arrested shortly after returning to Cambodia in April 2016, and charged with incitement to commit a felony and incitement to discriminate under the Criminal Code. The charges were over a public speech made by Um Sam An, which featured a doctored version of Article 4 of the 1979 Cambodian-Vietnamese border treaty and alleged that the countries had agreed to dissolve the border. The speech was then posted to CNRP President Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page. Um Sam An was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison on 10 October 2016.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) Senator Thak Lany was convicted on defamation and incitement charges under the Criminal Code and sentenced to 18 months in prison over comments she allegedly made in Ratanakkiri province during a constituency visit, which placed the blame on Prime Minister Hun Sen for the 10 July 2016 murder of political analyst Kem Ley. A video clip of the speech in question was posted on Facebook, resulting in the charges. Her defense team has said the comments were taken out of context but has so far failed to produce supporting evidence. She was tried and convicted in absentia, after fleeing to Sweden where she was granted political asylum.
In September 2016, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) then-Deputy President Kem Sokha was sentenced in absentia to five months in prison for failing to appear as a witness in response to summons under Article 538 of the Criminal Code in relation to a case against CNRP MPs Pin Ratana and Tok Vanchan, who were accused of procurement of prostitution in relation to an affair Kem Sokha was alleged to have had (the case against the two was subsequently suspended after the National Assembly declined to lift their immunity). An appeal against the conviction was denied on 4 November 2016. Kem Sokha stayed in hiding at the CNRP headquarters until a December 2016 royal pardon was issued and cleared him of the conviction.
In 2011, then-Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) MP Chan Cheng (now an MP for the CNRP) had his parliamentary immunity lifted so that he could be questioned over allegations that he had helped a local deputy commune chief escape from prison (although the latter had never been issued an arrest warrant and was allowed to walk out of the prison without any resistance). In December 2011, Chan Cheng, along with lawyer Choung Choungy, was charged with procuring means of escape under the Criminal Code. Although the case never moved forward at the time, in July 2014, Chan Cheng was summoned to appear in court, and in March 2015, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. An appeal hearing has yet to be scheduled. Chan Cheng has not been imprisoned, and, as of writing, is still acting as an MP.
In July 2014, seven Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) MPs-elect – Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavarin, Ho Vann, Real Camerin, Long Ry, and Nuth Rumduol – were arrested over the space of two days after holding a protest to “re-take” Freedom Park, Phnom Penh’s government-designated space for assemblies and gatherings, which had been closed off since January 2014. They were all charged with instigating aggravated, intentional violence, incitement to commit a felony, and leading an insurrectional movement, charges carrying a total combined penalty of 22 and a half to 37 years in prison. After a political deal between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP was reached later that month, they were all released, although the charges were never officially dropped. A year later, 11 officials and supporters of the CNRP, who had been arrested around the same time and in relation to the same protest, were convicted on charges relating to insurrection and sentenced to between seven and 20 years in prison.
Former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy was the target of six lawsuits from 2004 to 2013. Despite a royal pardon in 2013, on 13 November 2015, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy over a 2008 defamation case filed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong. He was subsequently stripped of his National Assembly seat and has been in exile since. In addition to the revived 2008 defamation case, Sam Rainsy has been charged in seven new cases since August 2015. He now faces seven years in prison for the existing convictions if he returns to Cambodia and could face up to an additional four years if convicted of all charges and sentenced to the maximum jail time permitted under the law. He was officially exiled by the Cambodian government in mid-October 2016.
In late October 2015, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) MPs Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sophea were severely beaten as they left the National Assembly by a group of protesters that had amassed to demonstrate against then-CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha. Shortly thereafter, three members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces who participated in the beating were arrested and charged with aggravated intentional violence and property damage under the Criminal Code. Although the three men were convicted on the aggravated international violence charges in May 2016 and given four-year sentences, the judge suspended three years of those sentences, and the men were released from prison in early November 2016.