A DECADE in the making, a new code of criminal law consisting of 672 articles is set to go into effect today in Phnom Penh and throughout the country on December 20.
The penal code defines criminal offences, responsibility and penalties, and complements the codes of penal procedure, civil law and civil procedure, all three of which are already en force.
The penal code was signed into law on November 30 of last year, but it included a one-year delay to provide time for government officials, law enforcement and legal professionals to become familiar with the new raft of laws.
According to the Constitution, laws are enacted en force in Phnom Penh 10 days after they are signed, and 20 days later in the provinces.
Officials at the Ministry of Justice said that over the past year they have provided copies of the new code and training sessions to judges, prosecutors, police and other civil servants.
Drafting for the code, which is based on the French civil system, began in 1999 and drew significant assistance from the French government.
The code introduces a spate of new crimes, whereas the UNTAC law – never intended as a long-term legal system – contained only about 30 criminal offences.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday the “criminal code plays a very important role in protecting human rights”.
But human rights activists have raised concerns about the new code. Licadho branded it a “setback for freedom of expression issues” in Cambodia yesterday, citing a host of concerns.
Two articles might have the effect of shielding the courts – which international human rights experts have said lack independence – from dissent.
According to Article 523, for example, criticism of a court decision that aims to “cause turmoil” or “endanger Cambodian institutions” could draw a prison sentence of up to six months and a fine of 1 million riels (US$245), Licadho said in an analysis released yesterday.
Article 522 makes the publication of commentaries intended to pressure a court a similar crime.
Article 502, Licadho said, makes an action, gesture, piece of writing or drawing that “affects the dignity” of a public official a minor crime with a prison sentence of between 1 and 6 days and a 1,000 to 100,000 riel fine. Licadho called the definition of this crime “vague and highly subjective; taken to the extreme, the article essentially criminalises all acts which hurt the feelings of public officials”.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana was unavailable for comment yesterday.