THE National Assembly has approved the final articles of the new draft Penal Code by an overwhelming majority, bringing an end to the formal deliberations on the specifics of the law.
The last 46 of the Code’s 672 articles – mostly laws relating to fraud, the forgery of official documents and currency counterfeiting – were passed during the session on Monday, but opposition members again aired concerns the code could endanger the right to freedom of expression.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said the articles relating to forgery crimes, which carry jail terms of 10 years or more, would help punish powerful people who use fake documents to confiscate land from others for development projects or economic land concessions.
“These laws will scare corrupt people and force them to cease their wrongdoing,” she said.
The issue of implementation, however, continues to be a concern for the opposition. Nhek Bun Chhay, a Funcinpec lawmaker, requested that government representatives clarify the laws relating to forged documents, stating that land conflicts were “a very serious problem” in Cambodia and questioning that the new laws will be enforced on the ground.
“After this law is approved by the King, how will government staff enforce [it] to resolve land conflicts, and how will we punish the crimes?” he asked.
Government officials, however, said the new Penal Code will pave the way for more effective law enforcement than under the UNTAC Law, which has provided the basis for criminal law since 1992.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana pledged that judicial authorities would make an effort to ensure its enforcement, stating that “a good law demands good implementation”.
As the debates on the final articles of the code drew to a close, freedom of expression again took centre stage, with Mu Sochua airing concerns that the new law’s articles on defamation and disinformation will have a parlous effect on the state of free speech.
“This law is opposed to the freedom of the press because people can be jailed on charges of incitement against any government official,” she said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that although defamation and disinformation – criminal charges under the new law – did not carry jail terms, a new article criminalising the defamation of government institutions could potentially curtail the work of civil society.
Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha said the law could be successful in reducing crime but agreed it would be a muzzle on freedom of expression.
“This new law is demanding the people not criticise government institutions,” he said.
Ou Virak also faulted the draft code’s review process – including the rejection of officials from the UN’s human rights office during the debate on the code’s defamation articles last week – saying civil society and relevant experts should have been allowed to give input on the code.
“The National Assembly Commission should have ordered an open hearing,” he said. “Why try to show you are trying to hide something?”