Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday told those who have claimed that a spate of recent arrests were politically motivated to “be careful” with their words, and raised the prospect that the seven CNRP lawmakers released from jail on July 22 could still be prosecuted.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said the July 22 political deal with CNRP President Sam Rainsy, which led the opposition to end its 10-month parliamentary boycott, had not brought an end to criminal justice.
“Please, other people, be careful with your words,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “The agreement of the two political parties on July 22 was not an agreement that put an end to the court processes for criminal cases. I want to clarify this.”
Mr. Hun Sen recounted that during a recent private meeting at the National Assembly, he informed Mr. Rainsy that the “insurrection” cases against the seven CNRP lawmakers and party official who were released from prison on the night of July 22 were not thrown out when the deal was made.
“The July 22 agreement did not end the cases in the court, including what I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy: Nobody can end this criminal prosecution,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Now, the parliamentarians have immunity, [but they] will be brought to trial if the immunity expires.”
The charges against the seven lawmakers include “leading an insurrection,” which can carry a jail sentence of up to 30 years.
Meach Sovannara, a prominent opposition CNRP official, was arrested and jailed on Tuesday last week—the morning after yet another round of failed talks between the two parties over a new bipartisan election committee.
A number of other political activists were also arrested last week, including a group of seven women from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community, who were sentenced to a year in prison during a trial held the day after they blocked a road with a bed during a protest.
Mr. Hun Sen said Thursday that such cases were clear breaches of the law and had to be prosecuted accordingly.
“It can’t be tolerated when there are roadblocks when something is happening because that’s time for the authorities to take action,” he said. “Is it easy to block a road while there are patients [being taken to the hospital]? And then to…interpret the criminal case as a political case?”
Mr. Sovannara, the CNRP official, was arrested over the same violent July 15 opposition protest that led police to imprison the seven CNRP lawmakers-elect and another party official in the days leading up to the sudden deal between the CPP and CNRP.
The prime minister said Thursday that those eight were released on bail on July 22 because the CNRP agreed to work to settle a number of civil cases against the lawmakers lodged by security guards injured in the protest at the center of their arrests.
“I was a negotiator and there was a request for intervention on the negotiation day,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy and his delegation to please speed up the civil cases in order to halt the criminal cases.”
“Why did I say that? It’s because we talked already about entering the parliament, so please enter the parliament, if you have to enter the parliament…for immunity. It’s called a civil procedure to halt a criminal procedure,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen also claimed Thursday that if he had the power to intervene, he would order the release of Mr. Sovannara and the other political activists arrested and jailed last week.
“Now, they accuse the government of using tools to crack the opposition party or arresting other people as hostages,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I want to send a message back that this case has happened because the prime minister and the government have no rights over the court.
“If I could say, ‘Please courts, don’t arrest,’ it would be convenient,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I would order the court to release today if I had that right. But I don’t have that right.”
Mr. Rainsy repeatedly said in the weeks after the deal that one of its key benefits would be the absence of arrests of activists and clashes between police and protesters.
At the time, no one in the CPP said that criminal litigation over the July 15 protest or other protests would cease, but both parties said the agreement included a pledge to restore a free political environment after months of protest repression and seemingly spurious arrests of protesters.
The CNRP’s seven lawmakers were sworn into office in August, gaining immunity from prosecution. A two-thirds majority of the 123-seat National Assembly is needed to strip lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity—a figure that neither party holds on its own.
Mr. Hun Sen dismissed claims made by the CNRP and a number of civil society groups over the past week that last week’s arrests were made to pressure the CNRP to fold in deadlocked talks to create the new electoral commission.
“It will not prevent the negotiating process to create the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the National Election Committee and the continuation of the amending of the internal [parliamentary] rules,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“I think it’s better not to pour gasoline onto a fire,” he added. “Everything must go according to law.”