Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has threatened to retaliate against the opposition party for its attempt to free a group of political activists from jail by stripping a rival politician of his parliamentary title.
On Monday Hun Sen told pro-government media that he wants to strip Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha of the minority leader title because of the opposition's push to get political prisoners released from prison.
Speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Hun Sen told Fresh News that he wants to "amend" the National Assembly's internal rules because the CNRP's use of minority leader's office "is frustrating, and that the CNRP's attempt to use it to negotiate for the release of the prisoners "infringes on the judiciary power."
The rule puts the National Assembly's minority leader on roughly the same parliamentary footing as the prime minister.
"Since I initiated [the rule] I now propose for an amendment to the rule to be endorsed by the CPP's members of parliament and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP)," he said.
CNRP leaders have made a concerted push for the release of the so-called "Kem Sokha Five" and other jailed activists since King Norodom Sihamoni granted Kem Sokha and a provincial CNRP leader a royal pardon late last year.
Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, all workers for ADHOC (the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association) and National Election Commission (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya were arrested in April.
They are accused of attempting to pay hush money to Kem Sokha's purported mistress in the government's wide-ranging probe into the alleged affair.
In December Kem Sokha and a provincial CNRP official Seang Chet were granted royal pardons in the case against the CNRP leader, but the other five people accused in connection with the case remain in prison.
Their royal pardon they were granted came at the behest of Hun Sen, who also heads the ruling CPP.
Opposition leaders were also pushing for the release of land-rights activist Tep Vanny, who was convicted on Sept. 19 of insulting and obstructing public officials and was sentenced to six months in prison in relation to a protest in November 2011 near Hun Sen's residence.
Tep Vanny gained prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from the neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh. The lake was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Seizure of land for development-often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents- is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.
Phnom Penh's political tango
Following Hun Sen's remarks, plans for a meeting between CPP and CNRP officials that was tentatively set for Jan. 25 were scrapped.
Majority Leader Sar Kheng, who is also the country's minister of the interior, on Jan. 17 sent a letter Kem Sokha telling him the much-anticipated meeting is postponed and no new date is set.
CPP spokesperson Chim Phal Virun told RFA's Khmer Service that the collapse of the talks is the CNRP's fault.
"The CPP cannot be cajoled by the CNRP to destroy the integrity of the three separate powers of government that are clearly stipulated in the constitution," he said. "We shall not be lured to infringe on the independence of the judiciary."
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann pointed said they were willing to meet anytime.
"It takes two to tango," he said. "If the CPP is too busy to meet or has other reasons not to meet, I don't know what we can do about it."
In Cambodia, judicial independence seems to depend upon the mood of Hun Sen, as opposition lawmakers and outspoken opponents of the government face severe penalties while allies of the prime minister are seldom charged.
The CNRP's exiled president Sam Rainsy continues to face a barrage of legal entanglements in Cambodia.
On Tuesday, the country's appeals court heard arguments in Sam Rainsy's attempt to get a defamation conviction overturned.
On Nov. 8 a Cambodian trial court found Sam Rainsy guilty of defamation for claiming that Hun Sen's social media team bought "likes" on Facebook from "click farms" abroad to bolster his support.
On Tuesday, after the appeal hearing, Som Soeun, chief of the technical group for the CPP website, accused Sam Rainsy of fabricating the claim.
"Sam Rainsy invented the allegation," he said. "He has twisted the facts and defamed me. The court verdict which will be publicized will clear me of this accusation and find me justice."
Som Sokong, an attorney for Sam Rainsy, said he has little faith in the lower court, but he thought the higher court might give his client a fair shake.
"I hope this higher court will exercise its independence to render a decision in favor of my client," he said.
Of Facebook, bribes and leaks
While Sam Rainsy's legal team was in court on Tuesday defending him in the defamation charge, he is likely to face more legal action for his accusation that Hun Sen bribed a former CNRP activist named Thy Sovantha to switch parties.
"Hun Sen, before his trip to Switzerland, allowed me to act on his behalf to prepare a lawsuit against Sam Rainsy who, recently, has accused the Prime Minister of bribing Thy Sovantha a million dollars," Hun Sen attorney Ky Tech told Fresh News.
"I have collected enough evidence for the lawsuit," he said, according to the report. "We will seek a million dollars in damages from Sam Rainsy."
Over 2016 Thy Sovantha transformed from one of the biggest pro-opposition social media activists in the country to one of the opposition's most aggressive critics.
On January 14, in Paris, Sam Rainsy, who was joined by Kem Sokha via Skype, talked about judicial double standard faced by the CNRP's members and human rights workers who are jailed over charges over what amount to a few hundred dollars.
"What about Hun Sen who bribed Thy Sovantha a million dollars?" he told the supporters. "Why has no one taken any actions against him? That one million dollars comes from the proceeds of corruption and is used to bribe bad people to organize demonstrations and attacks against the CNRP."
According to an article in Phnom Penh Post, Thy Sovantha recently announced that that she has received $3 million from international donors to fund a series of university scholarships.
Leaked phone messages allegedly show the prime minister's second son Hun Manith - head of the military's intelligence unit - conspiring with Thy Sovantha to discredit opposition leader Kem Sokha, according to local media reports.
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