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Cambodia: Opposition Legislator Arrested on Charges of Incitement

(Apr. 14, 2016) On April 10, 2016, Cambodian authorities arrested Um Sam An, an opposition legislator. He had been critical of the way the government had determined the border of Cambodia with neighboring Vietnam. His arrest in Siem Reap province, shortly after he returned from a trip to the United States, was announced by Khieu Sopheak of the Interior Ministry on April 11. (Aun Pheap & Alex Willemyns, Opposition Lawmaker Um Sam An Arrested, CAMBODIA DAILY (Apr. 11, 2016); Cambodian Police Arrest Opposition Critic of Border Policy, JAKARTA POST (Apr. 11, 2016).)

An has been opposed to how the government, headed by Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for 30 years, has interpreted maps of the border area abutting Vietnam, claiming that the official view favors Vietnam over traditional territorial claims of Cambodia. (Meas Sokchea, CNRP’s Um Sam An Sustains Rhetoric on Map, PHNOM PENH POST (Aug. 28, 2015).)

Purported Criminal Charge Against An

An was taken to court to be charged, reportedly due to his opinions on the border issue that were expressed in 2015. At the time of his court hearing, no journalists were allowed to observe the proceedings. An later stated that he was charged with inciting chaos, a crime that can be punished with as much as two years of imprisonment. (Pheap & Willemyns, supra; Cambodian Police Arrest Opposition Critic of Border Policy, supra.) The Cambodian Penal Code includes crimes involving incitement in several provisions, including a provision on “provocation to commit crimes,” which can be punished with terms of imprisonment of from six months to two years and fines of one million to four million riels (about US$248-$992). (Criminal Code of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Nov. 30, 2009), art. 495, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime website; Cambodia (183) > Criminal and Penal Law (11), NATLEX (last visited Apr. 13, 2016) (click on link for text in Khmer).)

Why Parliamentary Immunity Was Not Respected

The country’s Constitution states that legislators “shall enjoy parliamentary immunity. No National Assembly member shall be prosecuted, detained or arrested because of opinions expressed during the exercise of his (her) duties.” However it permits “accusation, arrest, or detention” of assembly members if their immunity has been stripped by a two-thirds vote or “in case of flagrant delicto.” (Cambodia [Constitution] 1993 (rev. 2008), Constitute Project website.) Similar provisions apply to members of the Cambodian Senate. (Id. art. 104.)

The Cambodian government is relying on the “flagrant delicto” clause to justify An’s arrest. Yim Sovann, a member of the same political party as An, rejected this approach and stated that the arrest was “against the Constitution. Um Sam An is still a member of parliament, he has immunity and he yet was arrested last night in Siem Reap.” (Pheap & Willemyns, supra.)

Background on Opposition to Government

An is a member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Another party member, Senator Hong Sok Hour, was arrested in August 2015 and has been accused of charges similar to those against An. Hour also criticized how Cambodia handled border issues with Vietnam. (Cambodian Police Arrest Opposition Critic of Border Policy, supra.) According to Sopheak, “[t]he case of Um Sam An [is] not different from the case of Hong Sok Hour, because he criticized the government about selling land to Vietnam and he also criticized the government for using fake maps.” (Pheap & Willemyns, supra.)

The border issue is just one aspect of the clash between the CPP and the opposition. The regime has the reputation of being authoritarian towards and of intimidating the opposition. (Cambodian Police Arrest Opposition Critic of Border Policy, supra.) The nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch describes Hun Sen’s regime as employing security force violence and initiating politically motivated prosecutions. (Cambodia, Human Rights Watch website (last visited Apr. 13, 2016).) Last fall, it was reported that two opposition legislators were beaten during an anti-government protest to the point that they lost consciousness. (CNRP Lawmakers Beaten, PHNOM PENH POST (Oct. 16, 2015).)