The National Assembly voted to suspend the parliamentary immunity of two opposition lawmakers Monday, as journalists and diplomats were barred from the session.
The two Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers, Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, are each facing lawsuits from figures in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which has a vast majority of National Assembly seats.
Mu Sochua is being sued by Prime Minister Hun Sen for defamation, and Ho Vann faces a similar charge from a block of 22 military officers, following public criticism of certificates they were awarded by the Vietnamese government.
Mu Sochua’s original lawsuit against Hun Sen, for allegedly degrading remarks made during the 2008 election campaign, has been dropped by the court.
Democracy advocates have said the cases represent political intimidation and an erosion on the freedom of expression.
Lawmakers from two opposition parties gathered after Monday’s session wearing masks to protest the immunity pull.
All 90 of the CPP lawmakers were present for the closed-door session Monday.
“The National Assembly is thinking of the [CPP],” Mu Sochua told reporters after the decision Monday. “The National Assembly is not an National Assembly belonging to the nation.”
She called the decision a “very serious” blow to Cambodian democracy. “The suspension of parliamentary immunity has no justice.”
Ho Vann called the decision “not fair or proper, because I corrected what I said.”
Am Sam Ath, chief of the investigation unit for the rights group Licadho, called the decision improper, as both cases were minor, while Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Assocition, called on all 26 opposition lawmakers to resign from the National Assembly over the matter.
“The parliamentarians cannot defend themselves,” he said. “So the people will face a violation of their rights and freedoms, because the parliament represents the people, to protect the people, and now, parliamentary immunity is not guaranteed. This is a serious point.”
CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yiep said Monday the decision had been made “following the procedures and the law.”
“We must respect the law,” he said.
Journalists, diplomats and other observers were barred from Monday’s meeting.
“We’re surprised and disappointed about this,” Elizabeth Haven, deputy chief mission for the British Embassy told reporters in front of the National Assembly. “We do not understand why access has been denied. We normally monitor the National Assembly.”
“Usually, this should be a public session,” said German Ambassador Frank Mann, adding that he too was disappointed.
Mu Sochua reiterated Monday claims that she would not flee the country and would struggle by legal means against Hun Sen’s lawsuit. She did say, however, that she is to travel for business purposes to the United States and would be back in early July.