When Prime Minister Hun Sen last week accused his main rival in the forthcoming national election of paying a 15-year-old girl for sex, it was more than a sensational allegation. It was also an admission of serious criminal wrongdoing.
And as damning as the allegations are against Kem Sokha, Mr. Hun Sen’s claim that he helped the opposition leader escape the law is nothing short of a self-incriminating confession to aiding in the alleged crime, and further promotion of the rule of impunity in Cambodia, legal experts say.
“It is a crime to interfere with the administration of justice,” said Michael Karnavas, a defense attorney at the hybrid Khmer Rouge tribunal. “In this instance, there are a host of issues that could lead to a host of charges.”
Mr. Hun Sen leveled the accusation against Mr. Sokha, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president, on Thursday, claiming that police had come to him one day in 2011 with urgent news that the opposition leader had just paid $500 for a teenage virgin and was en route to a hotel to consummate the transaction.
The prime minister then claimed that he called off the police officers investigating the case for fear of being accused that he was interfering in Mr. Sokha’s personal affairs, and that he had also tipped off Mr. Sokha so that he could make his escape.
“We should have arrested him in the bed,” Mr. Hun Sen said in his speech broadcast on national TV and radio last week.
“But not only did I not authorize his arrest, I also sent other agents to go to Micasa Hotel without notifying authorities. It was like signaling to him that the authorities knew, and he escaped,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“But I am not sure about the destiny of this granddaughter’s virginity later on,” the prime minister added. “So you have to remember that I helped you by breaking the law myself.”
Sok Sam Oeun, a lawyer who heads the Cambodian Defenders Project, a leading legal aid NGO, said that the prime minister—if his claims were true—opened himself up to prosecution under the law. By stopping the arrest of Mr. Sokha, Mr. Sam Oeun said, the prime minister had placed himself above the law.
“If the police have enough evidence, why [did] they stop? If they stopped because of Hun Sen, they can arrest him [Mr. Hun Sen] instead,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “According to the law, yes.”
“If the people listen to his order, it means law enforcement is very weak in Cambodia and it is politicized,” he added.
But Mr. Sam Oeun cast doubt on the actual allegations against Mr. Sokha, noting that they were made during a “political time” before elections.
The prime minister has provided no evidence to back up the claims he made last week against the opposition leader, and Mr. Sokha has himself denied them.
If they were true, said Mr. Karnavas, the defense attorney at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the prime minister had left himself open to a number of serious charges.
“Under the Cambodian Constitution, the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure, the prime minister has no authority to obstruct an investigation of ongoing criminal activity,” he said. “The prime minister’s apparent admission of knowingly and intentionally forbidding an arrest, investigation and prosecution is disquieting, if in fact what the prime minister claims are true—not a necessary given.”
Taken at face value, he added, Mr. Hun Sen’s claims of letting someone escape the scene of a crime could even make him an accomplice.
“Suppressing an arrest, investigation and prosecution of serious criminal activity, and assisting in the cover-up of the ongoing crime, makes the prime minister an accessory to the criminal activity,” he said.
“The facts as claimed by the prime minister demonstrates unequivocally that the rule of law does not exist in Cambodia,” he said. “The prime minister is sending a chilling message to Cambodians: He is above the law, and when it is to his convenience or whims, he will ensure that other Cambodians can be above the law as well.”
Child protection workers also took issue with the alleged protection of an alleged child abuser. But Chin Chanveasna, director of the NGO End Child Prostitution, Abuse and Trafficking, said most people would see through the prime minister’s allegations as political theater.
“I believe he is playing politics…and I don’t believe it is real,” Mr. Chanveasna said.
“I believe it is more politics than reality. I think people understand this. It happens during elections.”
If the allegations against Mr. Sokha were true, Mr. Chanveasna said, “law enforcement won’t let him go.”
Sarah Bearup, country director for Hagar, which supports both male and female victims of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual exploitation, said allegations of child sex abuse should be left to an independent judiciary and out of the political arena.
“If a minor was abused, then it’s sad to see the issue enter the [election] campaign discussions,” Ms. Bearup said. “Protection should be handled by independent courts, based on the facts and with respect to the privacy of those involved.”
Spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, which oversees the national police, said the prime minister did have evidence implicating Mr. Sokha in the crime, but he declined to say what it was.
“What I can say is he has the real evidence…because he [the prime minister] never lies to the people,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak said, before referring all additional questions to Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet.
Asked to comment on Mr. Hun Sen’s culpability in abetting the flight of Mr. Sokha from potential arrest, Lt. Gen. Sopheak declined to comment.
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