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Fire safety law sparks debate

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Firefighters battle to put out a fire in a Phnom Penh market area late last month. Legal experts are now debating a draft law penalising officials who demand bribes to put out fires and jail for arsonists. Photograph: Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post

Government legal experts spent yesterday debating a draft law on fire prevention that would allow courts to sentence officials who demand bribes before extinguishing fires and introduce penalties of up to 15 years in jail for arson.

Ouk Kimlek, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, said that the ministry believes the law, the first of its kind, will take effect at the end the year after approval from higher government institutions.

“We hope that at the end of 2012, this law will come into practice after it is sent from the Council of Ministers to the National Assembly, the senate and the Constitutional Council, and lastly is signed by the King,” Kimlek said.

In response to frequent complaints, the law would allow courts to sentence firefighting officials who demand money for their work to between six months and two years in prison, he said.

Neth Vantha, director of Phnom Penh’s municipal firefighting department, said that the draft law would also allow the court to put arsonists away for up to 15 years.

The draft law, initiated at the end of December and finished in June, will mandate that people keep fire extinguishers in their homes and allow the court to punish residents who disobey the orders of firefighting officials during a fire, he added.

Kimlek said that by imposing penalties, the law’s drafters hope it will pressure the public to become more aware of how to prevent unexpected fires caused by things like the malfunction of electrical devices.

Paul Hurford, director of Australian Firefighters International Relief and Education (AFIRE), a Cambodian-based Australian organisation working with the government to train firefighters, told the Post that the law is “a good thing for the development of the country”, but said that it could play only a small part in educating the public about fire safety.

Lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, had not seen the draft law, but cautioned that its implementation could be a burden for poor people who cannot afford fire extinguishers and who live in wooden houses that easily catch fire.

Already, he said, police will often fine poor families multiple times a year for not having fire extinguishers in their homes, while the government offers no monetary assistance for these families to purchase such fire safety equipment.

According to Kimlek, the 240 reports of fire in the first half of 2012 signal a growth in fire frequency from 2011, which saw 450 reports and 15 deaths in the whole year.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chhay Channyda at channyda.chhay@phnompenhpost.com
With assistance from Justine Drennan

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