Soy Sopheap, a prominent media personality and longtime fixer for Prime Minister Hun Sen, is mediating a resolution that could allow opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country without facing arrest, according to those involved in the discussions.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong on Friday requested the enforcement of a 2011 court decision sentencing Mr. Rainsy to two years in jail for claims that the minister had been a Khmer Rouge collaborator—even though the conviction was widely believed pardoned in 2013.
Mr. Rainsy had pledged to return to Phnom Penh from Seoul on Monday night but changed his mind hours before his scheduled departure, following his ouster from the National Assembly at the hands of CPP lawmakers, a move that expunged his legal immunity from prosecution.
Speaking by telephone on Tuesday, Mr. Rainsy said he had always understood that his 2013 royal pardon, which allowed him to return freely to Cambodia without facing a number of criminal convictions, had also included the 2011 verdict in Mr. Namhong’s defamation case.
“Of course. When I decided to come to Cambodia in July 2013, I told everybody, including the CPP people, that I had made my decision regardless of any royal pardon, which I did not yet have, as the election was a good time to return,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“They told me to wait, as they were preparing my pardon, and did not want to lose face,” he said, explaining that his contact point was “a person close to the CPP and to the government who runs a number of media companies.”
Asked if the person was Mr. Sopheap, the proprietor of Deum Ampil news and a shareholder in the popular Fresh News service—and a well-known fixer for the CPP—Mr. Rainsy said he believed that it was.
“I think it was him. He told me: ‘I can assure you that things will be arranged.’ This time, I may also hear something in connection to this, but I cannot force it. I have to wait for things to materialize,” he said.
Mr. Sopheap confirmed on Tuesday that he met on Monday with a “secretary” for Mr. Rainsy, but characterized his role as merely offering ideas.
“Yesterday, myself and a secretary from Sam Rainsy’s side had unofficial discussions,” Mr. Sopheap said. “We have seen what the situation is like, and we provided ideas to him, if he wants to listen.”
“I am only giving ideas as a friend and an individual, not as the compromise person,” he added. “Between you and me, I say just casually: If he could move one step backward, as we are all mature, it would be good, and we should speak together.”
Mr. Sopheap said that the talks were occurring over coffee, and that he hoped they would lead to a similar solution as the last two times that Mr. Rainsy was pardoned of crimes and allowed to return freely.
“In 2006 and 2013, Sam Rainsy relied on sending letters,” Mr. Sopheap said. “We just did that on behalf of Cambodians and journalists to help each other…. I just helped by sending the messages.”
In 2006, Mr. Hun Sen issued a letter thanking Mr. Sopheap for helping the government resolve cases involving Mr. Rainsy and other opposition figures and activists, writing that his work had been done in “the atmosphere of one family.”
Mr. Sopheap noted on Tuesday that the talks that led to Mr. Rainsy’s 2013 pardon had started back in January 2011. In order to return the time before that, in 2006, Mr. Rainsy wrote a letter to Mr. Hun Sen apologizing for accusing him of organizing the 1997 grenade attack on one of his rallies in Phnom Penh that killed 16 of his supporters and injured more than 150.
Following Mr. Rainsy’s decision not to return from Seoul on Monday night, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that no such negotiations for Mr. Rainsy’s freedom could occur this time until the opposition leader was in prison.
On Tuesday, Mr. Eysan acknowledged that Mr. Sopheap had helped the ruling party resolve political tensions in the past but said that would not help the opposition leader this time around.
“The CPP never relies on Soy Sopheap to compromise in politics, but there were other parties that asked Soy Sopheap to make requests to the CPP in 2008,” the spokesman said. “He was an agent between the CPP and the other parties in 2008.”
Mr. Eysan said that because Mr. Hun Sen had already asked King Norodom Sihamoni to pardon Mr. Rainsy twice before, and had warned he would never do so again, the CNRP president would not avoid imprisonment if he returns.
“He has already given a pardon to Sam Rainsy two times and there will be no third time,” he said. “If there is compromise, it will overlap with the law…. He is a repeat offender, so he will serve his punishment.”
Mr. Rainsy had pledged to return to Cambodia late on Monday night to face jail but said he changed plans after CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang advised him to delay the return by a few days to avoid an alleged CPP plan to cause violence under the dark of night.
According to Mr. Rainsy, a bout of violence similar to the bashing of two CNRP lawmakers by pro-CPP thugs outside the National Assembly last month may have led to escalating tensions that would result in Mr. Hun Sen delaying election reforms or even the 2018 national election.
A story in the Rasmei Kampuchea Daily newspaper on Tuesday cited an anonymous source close to Mr. Rainsy as saying he now plans to return to Phnom Penh sometime on Thursday, explaining that he would be arriving on a flight from Paris.
Mr. Chhay Eang, the CNRP lawmaker, said the report was untrue and that no such plans exist.
“They have written a set-up story…. I also know how to write like this,” Mr. Chhay Eang said. “Tomorrow, the leaders of the CNRP will hold a meeting to discuss his return…[and] collect all information in order to send it to him to make the decision.”
Mr. Rainsy, who on Monday night refused to guarantee his time abroad would not stretch into a matter of weeks or months, as it has in the past, also said on Tuesday that his plans were still being arranged.
“I told you I am planning to [return], but I cannot say which day precisely. It depends. I have other things to wait for, and many things to resolve. It depends on many developments,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“In a strategy, you have to consider all the elements, and sometimes things change, such as the stripping of my immunity a few hours before my return. I would be blind or silly not to react to elements that changed the entire situation. Immunity is important,” he said.
“You wrote today that it was a matter of credibility and my honor is at stake, but what is important is to win the next election,” he added.
“That’s why for the time being I cannot say. If something unexpected and important happens in my favor, I would come back immediately.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Soy Sopheap was the proprietor of Fresh News. He is a shareholder in the company.
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