Fate of Political Pluralism in Balance as Sam Rainsy Party under Attack
(New York) -- The targeting of opposition parliamentarians is a thinly-veiled effort by Cambodia’s ruling parties to eliminate their political opponents, Human Rights Watch said today. This week three leading opposition members of Cambodia’s National Assembly were stripped of their parliamentary immunity and one was subsequently arrested.
In a closed session on February 3, the National Assembly voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of outspoken opposition leader Sam Rainsy and legislators Cheam Channy and Chea Poch, members of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Under Cambodia’s Constitution, members of the National Assembly are immune from prosecution. Lifting of parliamentary immunity enables the three parliamentarians to face prosecution.
Observers––including diplomats and journalists who had come to monitor the proceedings––were barred from the session, which was chaired by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the royalist Funcinpec Party. National Assembly proceedings are normally televised, but cameras were barred.
All three opposition politicians face criminal charges under lawsuits initiated by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen or Ranariddh, his partner in a coalition government that was established after national elections in 2003.
“This is nothing less than a move to get rid of the political opposition in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “If Sam Rainsy and his party members are prosecuted or expelled from the parliament on such bogus grounds, the progress on political pluralism made since the 1991 peace agreements will be lost.”
After the National Assembly vote, Rainsy immediately fled the country and Poch went into hiding. At 7 p.m. that night, Cheam Channy was arrested, brought to military court for questioning, and detained at the National Military Police Headquarters for two nights. On Saturday he was transferred to the military prison in Phnom Penh. He has been charged by the Military Court with organized crime and fraud under Cambodia’s 1992 Criminal Code, along with failure to follow military orders under a 1997 regulation issued by the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Human Rights Watch said that under Cambodian law, the mandate of the Military Court covers only military offenses committed by currently-serving military personnel, and thus it is beyond its scope to prosecute or detain civilians such as Channy.
“Cheam Channy should be immediately released,” said Adams. “He’s a member of the National Assembly and by definition he’s a civilian, not a military officer. It’s illegal for him to be charged and detained by the military court.”
Sam Rainsy and Chea Poch face criminal defamation complaints filed by Ranariddh at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year for allegedly stating that the Prince accepted bribes in exchange for agreeing to form a coalition government with Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Rainsy also faces a suit from Hun Sen after he allegedly stated that Hun Sen had drawn up a blacklist of political opponents to be assassinated, including Rainsy. A third case of defamation against Rainsy was filed by members of a Buddhist pagoda near Phnom Penh, after Rainsy warned King Sihanouk of possible demonstrations being planned by people at the pagoda upon the king’s return to Cambodia last October.
In July 2004 Hun Sen accused Cheam Channy and other SRP members of forming an illegal rebel army. In October, the Military Court requested that the National Assembly lift Channy’s parliamentary immunity so that he could be charged (see “Cambodia: Opposition Party Activists Under Threat, Human Rights Watch press release, July 28, 2004).
Following a one-year stalemate after the 2003 national elections, in which the incumbent CPP failed to win the two-thirds majority required to form a government, the CPP reached a power-sharing agreement with Funcinpec in July 2004. Three days after formation of the coalition government, Hun Sen accused Cheam Channy and other members of the SRP’s Committee No. 14 of forming a military armed group. The party has made no effort to conceal the existence of Committee No. 14, a body of SRP activists that monitors the government’s military activities.
Constant threats of violence and arrest
Rainsy and Ranariddh have long had a tempestuous relationship. Both were founding members of Funcinpec. Rainsy was named Minister of Finance by Ranariddh after the Funcinpec victory in the 1993 U.N.-sponsored election, but was sacked in 1994. In June 1995, Rainsy was expelled from the National Assembly after Ranariddh had him removed from the party. Rainsy subsequently established his own opposition party, now called the SRP. Rainsy and Ranariddh formed an anti-CPP alliance for both the 1998 and 2003 elections, but in each case Ranariddh eventually joined a coalition government with Hun Sen and Rainsy remained in opposition.
Rainsy has been subject to constant threats of violence and arrest. The most extreme attack occurred on March 30, 1997, when a peaceful rally led by Rainsy against judicial corruption was attacked by grenade throwers, leaving at least 16 dead and 150 injured. Rainsy was the clear target of the attack but survived when his bodyguards fell on top of him. For the first time, Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit was present at an opposition rally, dressed in full riot gear. United Nations and FBI investigations established that Hun Sen’s bodyguards allowed the grenade throwers to pass through their lines, but stopped at gunpoint individuals who subsequently attempted to pursue them.
Hun Sen has frequently called for Rainsy to be arrested, including after the 1997 grenade attack. He also staged a bloody coup against Ranariddh, his co-prime minister, in July 1997. More than 100 Funcinpec members were extra-judicially executed by Hun Sen’s forces, many found bound and blind-folded. Ranariddh fled into exile for nine months and was convicted in a show trial in absentia. He was pardoned in a political deal paving the way for national elections in July 1998.
“It is ironic that Ranariddh has forgotten the past attempts by Hun Sen to remove him from the political process and has now become the tool for attacking Sam Rainsy and the political opposition,” said Adams. “Hun Sen has never shown any commitment to political pluralism. Now Ranariddh, by presiding over the removal of parliamentary immunity and bringing a criminal defamation case against Rainsy, is making clear his own disdain for democratic norms.”