Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy was stripped of his MP’s status and parliamentary immunity yesterday, paving the way for his arrest in connection with a defamation case that the opposition says is politically motivated.
Mr Rainsy, who was on a visit to South Korea, announced in a Facebook post that he would not fly home as scheduled, but that he planned to return “in the next few days”.
Officials from his party said he had delayed his return to avoid the possibility of violence.
“Sam Rainsy is not afraid of coming back and going to jail, but he is worried about a confrontation between his supporters and authorities,” said Eng Chhay Eang, an opposition national assembly member.
The prospect of Mr Rainsy’s arrest sparked criticism and fears of unrest in the politically volatile nation, which has seen several bouts of violence following crackdowns by authorities on opposition supporters.
The US embassy in Phnom Penh called on the Cambodian national assembly to “immediately” reinstate Sam Rainsy as a lawmaker and restore his immunity.
“Today’s actions are the latest incidents of harassment and intimidation of Cambodia’s opposition,” the embassy said, while it also called on the government to revoke the warrant for Mr Rainsy’s arrest.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the arrest of Mr Rainsy on Friday in connection with a defamation case brought by foreign minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
In a speech, Mr Rainsy had accused Hor Namhong of colluding with the Khmer Rouge while being held as a prisoner by the radical group.
The court convicted Mr Rainsy in 2013 and sentenced him to two years in jail. Mr Rainsy appealed but lost. The conviction was never enforced and he continued to live freely in Cambodia, serving as the leader of his party in parliament.
Yesterday, amid questions about the legality of arresting a sitting MP, the national assembly’s standing committee called a special session and emerged with a statement saying it had revoked Mr Rainsy’s special privileges.
“Sam Rainsy has lost his parliamentary privileges, his rights and membership as a lawmaker of the National Assembly,” it said.