PHNOM PENH - Cambodian ruling party lawmakers have removed opposition leader Sam Rainsy from his parliamentary post, following the release of a warrant for his arrest.
His removal from parliament was decided by the legislature's Standing Committee and was announced late Monday by National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
The opposition leader, who is out of the country, said on his official Facebook page late Monday that 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."
Following the committee meeting on Monday, National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun told reporters the decision was in compliance with the constitution.
“He lost all his rights when this warrant came out. He is no longer a member of national assembly, so he lost his immunity. Let me explain why the case started in 2013, why it was not enforced until now? The decision was made in 2013, but it was sent back to Phnom Penh court for implementation. The Phnom Penh court is obligated to issue a warrant. This is the procedure of the judiciary system," he said.
However, Eng Chhai Eang, a senior opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker and a member of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee, said he did not support the measure.
“One group said Sam Rainsy is under court authority. So I suggested that the national assembly needed to explain if Sam Rainsy was under court warrant since 2013, why are national institutions, including NEC, national assembly and even royal palace helping the convicted person became a lawmaker. By law, anyone under conviction is banned from running office as a lawmaker," he said.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which is accused by critics of being politically biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), issued the warrant on Friday in connection with 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.
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.
“There is no loophole in the law. It is human error. They forgot to properly handle the case," he said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. 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," the statement said.
The interior ministry says it 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.”
The arrest warrant follows the removal of Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha from a senior post at the National Assembly, along with the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers by masked men outside the legislature following pro-CPP rallies in October.
Human Rights Watch has condemned the violence as reminiscent of CPP tactics against the opposition when its power was threatened in the 1990s.
The arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy was issued last week shortly after he compared Cambodia's political system to the one in Myanmar, which recently held its first free elections in more than 25 years. Talking with reporters in Japan, he accused the CPP of attempting to curb free elections in 2018 by creating troubles such as violence against CNRP lawmakers and amendments of the election law.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responded sharply to the comparison with Myanmar, accusing Sam Rainsy of taking advantage of world history to attack the ruling party.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service