PHNOM PENH —
Ruling party lawmakers at the National Assembly have removed opposition leader Sam Rainsy from his parliamentary post, following the release of a warrant for his arrest by the court’s on Friday.
Sam Rainsy, who is abroad, canceled plans to return to Cambodia Monday night, and the Interior Ministry said it is has formed a special committee to handle his arrest.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court—widely seen as politically biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party—issued the warrant on Friday, for a 2008 lawsuit brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, who claims Sam Rainsy defamed him in a speech by accusing him of collusion with the Khmer Rouge.
Defamation is a criminal charge in Cambodia, carrying punishments of jail time and fines, and the warrant comes amid heightened political tension between the CPP and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
It follows closely behind the removal of Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha from a senior post at the Assembly, along with the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers by masked men outside the Assembly following pro-CPP rallies in October.
Human Rights Watch condemned the violence as reminiscent of CPP tactics against the opposition when its power was threatened in the 1990s.
Sam Rainsy’s removal from parliament was decided by the National Assembly’s Standing Committee and was announced by National Assembly President Heng Samrin. “His Excellency Sam Rainsy has fully lost all rights, prerogatives and membership of the National Assembly for the constituency of Kompong Cham province in the fifth mandate,” the statement said.
CPP spokesman for the Assembly Chheang Vun told reporters following the committee meeting on Monday that the decision was in compliance with the constitution. The issuance of the arrest warrant prompted the decision, which will mean a loss of parliamentary immunity for Sam Rainsy, he said.
However, Eng Chhai Eang, a senior Rescue Party lawmaker and a member of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee, said he did not support the measure.
Sok Sam Oeun, an independent lawyer, said a political deal had moved Sam Rainsy past the verdict in 2013, otherwise, “there would have been more discussion” about it and it would have been resolved ahead of elections.
As it stands now, the Ministry of Interior has formed a special committee to search for and arrest Sam Rainsy, who was traveling in South Korea when his arrest warrant was issued. National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith told reporters Monday that police will “implement the court’s verdict.”
Sam Rainsy said on his official Facebook page Monday night he would not immediately return to Cambodia. “I should also leave some time for diplomatic intervention to materialize with the objective of reaching a peaceful solution to the recent escalation of violence in Cambodia,” he wrote. He hopes to return to Cambodia “in the next few days,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the US Embassy issued a statement Monday calling for Sam Rainsy’s reinstatement and the return of his parliamentary immunity. “We also call on the government to revoke the arrest warrant issued against Rainsy on seven-year-old defamation charges and to allow him and other opposition parliamentarians to return to Cambodia without fear of arrest or persecution.”