Parliamentary Immunity

[In February 2005, the National Assembly removed the parliamentary immunity from three opposition (Sam Rainsy Party) members who were accused of attempting to form an armed group against the government. As this letter points out, parliamentary immunity in Cambodia is much broader than in many other countries. I cannot recall which paper(s) the letter was sent to, or whether it was published.]

There is even more than the usual amount of hypocrisy in the US government’s attack on the National Assembly decision to remove parliamentary immunity from three members of the Sam Rainsy Party.

Such a vote could not have occurred in the United States for the simple reason that parliamentarians there would not have had immunity for charges like those faced by the three SRP members.

Article I, Section 6 of the US constitution states that senators and members of the House of Representatives “shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same”.

This provision, designed to prevent parliamentary votes being altered by the arrest of one side or the other, applies only while the relevant house is in session. It prevents arrest only, not charges or trials. And it is further limited by the exceptions for treason, felonies and breaches of the peace.

The same section also protects parliamentarians from facing either criminal or civil prosecution for speeches in the Congress: “for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place”.

This immunity is regarded as extending to meetings of Congressional committees and subcommittees, but no further. In 1979, the US Supreme Court specifically ruled that the immunity does not extend to press releases, statements to the media or other public remarks outside the Congress. Thus a member of the Congress who publicly accused, say, the speaker of the House of Representatives of accepting corrupt payments, would be sued for defamation immediately, with no need for any vote to remove immunity.

Had they faced the same accusations in the US, the three SRP members would have been before the courts long ago. It seems that the Cambodian constitution provides greater protection for parliamentarians than does the US constitution. But “Do as I say, not as I do” has long been the unofficial motto of the US government.

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