Death Knell for Democracy: Attacks on Lawmakers and the Threat to Cambodia’s Institutions

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Executive Summary

In February 2017, Cambodia’s Parliament approved a set of new amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which grant unprecedented powers to the executive and judicial branches to suspend and dissolve political parties. The move was the culmination of an ongoing effort to undermine the capacity of the political opposition in Cambodia, which has been characterized by nearly two years of escalating persecution of Cambodian parliamentarians.

The phenomenon in Cambodia resembles threats to opposition voices elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but it is particularly acute. Since July 2014, at least 17 Cambodian legislators from the National Assembly and the Senate have been direct victims of harassment and attacks, both judicial and physical, in the context of a widening crackdown by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). While opposition parliamentarians have consistently faced threats and prosecution since the advent of the modern political period in Cambodia in the early 1990s, the most recent wave of attacks represents a significant escalation of politically motivated persecution through the use of the judiciary and the legislature itself.

The groundwork was laid following the 2013 national election, in which the CPP lost its super-majority in the National Assembly. Following the breakdown of a newly established “culture of dialogue” between the ruling party and the opposition in mid-2015, attacks against lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) intensified. Given the transformed political dynamics, however, the CPP’s tactics have increasingly threatened not only the safety of opposition parliamentarians, but the credibility and effectiveness of democratic institutions themselves, including the capacity of the Parliament to serve its legislative, representative, and oversight roles.

The wave of persecution, leading up to the passage of the amendments to the Law on Political Parties, has encompassed three broad areas: 1) politically motivated court cases and charges against opposition lawmakers and the threat of additional judicial prosecutions; 2) violations of procedure in the National Assembly, which, in particular, have eroded parliamentary immunity protections afforded in the Cambodian constitution; and 3) threats, intimidation, and orchestrated physical violence, which have contributed to a climate of fear among opposition voices in government and civil society

Judicial Attacks

In the past three years, 15 parliamentarians have found themselves the victims of criminal charges and court proceedings, which collectively constitute an unprecedented judicial attack on the Cambodian opposition. Two lawmakers have been jailed, two are currently in exile having been convicted on criminal charges, and one was convicted and spent more than six months under effective house arrest in order to avoid imprisonment in 2016. Meanwhile, at least eight others have seen their cases put on hold, but not dropped, leaving the charges – which could be revived at any time – as threats hanging over their heads.

The cases reveal deep flaws in the judicial system, which lacks independence and remains heavily influenced by the executive branch. Their nature, as well as the manner in which they have been raised, investigated, and prosecuted, leaves little doubt as to their political motivations. The vagueness of relevant legal statutes, including those relating to so-called “flagrant” offenses, facilitates their abuse by the authorities and the ruling party.

Cases that have been pursued against opposition MPs generally fall into two categories: 1) lawmakers that have raised sensitive political issues or are perceived by the CPP as being overly critical, and 2) politicians that pose a threat to the CPP due to their popularity, visibility, and influence. The arbitrary and plainly political nature of the charges brought against individual parliamentarians, as well as the prevalence of outstanding charges, puts a large number of lawmakers at risk and leads to self-censorship and an overall undermining of the opposition’s ability to effectively fulfill its parliamentary functions.

Legislative Attacks and Procedural Violations

As the judiciary has pursued politically motivated cases against opposition lawmakers, the Parliament itself has failed to defend its members from these attacks. The Cambodian Constitution, along with other statutes, affords legislators immunity from prosecution.

The lifting of this immunity requires a two-thirds majority vote of the relevant legislative chamber, which in the past, the CPP was able to obtain easily. Following the 2013 elections, however, the CPP no longer maintained a super-majority in the National Assembly and therefore moved into uncharted territory in its efforts to allow for the prosecution of opposition MPs. In particular, authorities have relied on the use of the so-called “flagrante delicto” clause, which allows for the arrest and prosecution of MPs in cases where the alleged offenders are caught in the act of committing a crime. Vague legislation and creative interpretations of relevant laws by an overly zealous, politicized judiciary have been facilitated by the National Assembly’s violation of the procedures regarding these cases – in particular its failure to lift immunity while ostensibly authorizing cases to proceed.

Parliamentary immunity exists as a bulwark against politically motivated actions by an executive and politicized judiciary. Yet as a result of its actions, the Cambodian Parliament has aided and abetted efforts by the executive and judicial branches to harass opposition parliamentarians and severely undercut both the immunity protections afforded by Cambodian law and the space available for the opposition to fulfill its duties.

Other actions by the Parliament have contravened existing regulations and twisted provisions in order to undermine the opposition. These actions, including stripping CNRP leaders of titles and positions without legal basis, threaten opportunities for inter-party dialogue and effective parliamentary oversight of executive functions.

The Parliament’s passage of amendments to the Law on Political Parties in February 2017, which followed changes made to the National Assembly’s internal regulations in January eliminating the majority and minority groups in Parliament, demonstrate the extent to which the CPP-controlled legislature acts as a rubber stamp for the executive branch. Through these moves, which cripple the opposition’s capacity to engage and speak out, the Cambodian Parliament has hindered successful dialogue and debate and threatened the existence of the CNRP.

Climate of Fear

Parliamentarians have been victims of physical attacks – prominently in October 2015 when two CNRP MPs were brutally beaten by a pro-government mob outside the National Assembly – as well as verbal and online threats from CPP leaders, members, and supporters, and other forms of intimidation. These attacks and threats produce a climate of fear that reinforces the danger posed to opposition MPs and undermines their security and capacity to carry out their roles. Though such threats are not a new feature of Cambodian politics, the escalation of such harassment – both in its frequency and its severity, as evidenced by the beatings – has been a particularly concerning development in the past several years. This climate of fear has also impacted other sectors, including civil society, whose members have been targeted in the context of investigations into MPs.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the ruling party’s efforts to cripple the opposition, in advance of critical commune-level and national elections in 2017 and 2018 respectively, are undermining the fundamental functions and institutions of democratic governance. In the CPP’s haste to ensure that the opposition remains unable to effectively challenge its rule in upcoming electoral contests, it has dispensed with adherence to proper procedures and relied heavily on a politicized judicial system, a pliant legislature, and violent mobs to carry out its goals – actions which threaten the system itself and make reform an ever more distant possibility. Addressing persecution and threats against lawmakers, including through revision and clarification of relevant statutes and efforts to ensure all actors adhere to the law, must therefore be a priority for all parties interested in stability, prosperity, and accountability in Cambodia.