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Rights groups say denial law a threat to freedom

Rights groups said yesterday they believed the controversial Khmer Rouge crimes denial law, which was rammed through the National Assembly last week, would be used to freeze free speech in the run-up to the July elections.

On Friday, the law passed unanimously and with no debate by CPP lawmakers during a specially convened session of the National Assembly.

The law makes denial of crimes committed during Democratic Kampuchea an offence punishable by up to two years in prison and by fines of up to $1,000. Similarly, people can be punished for glorifying, opposing, downplaying or refusing to recognise the crimes that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, while legal entities – including companies and political parties – can be punished if their representatives are found guilty.

Rights monitors said they were doubtful many prosecutions would arise from the law, given that denial is all but non-existent in Cambodia, but said they believed the law would instead be used to silence opposing voices.

“I don’t expect anything serious to take place or prosecutions to take place, but what this does for the Cambodian public is to further create fear for expressing one’s opinion,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.

His comments were echoed by Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, who said the speed with which the law was passed raised questions as to its intention. “The law was passed in record time, with apparently little or no consultation [ . . . ] and through a national assembly from which opposition members had been expelled on mass,” he wrote in an email, adding that it appeared “incompatible” with Cambodia’s freedom of expression obligations.

Of the 86 ruling party and Funcinpec lawmakers present Friday, none offered pushback on the highly criticised law. Instead, after each of the brief, five articles were read out, lawmakers stood up to praise the law their party had drafted a week ago and, at times, to share their own suffering under the Khmer Rouge.

No opposition members were present. All 27 Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party lawmakers were stripped of their elected posts Wednesday by the National Assembly’s CPP-controlled permanent committee.

While National Assembly ruling party lawmakers insisted Friday that the law was created to protect the survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said he had little doubt the legislation was, in fact, politically motivated. “They’re trying to create an environment where the opposition is very careful about how they talk about the Khmer Rouge,” he said yesterday.

With campaigns for the July 28 election beginning, Panha said the law’s passage shifts the focus from more pressing issues in the Kingdom and creates an “environment of fear”. “It will affect the fairness of the election coming up.”

Additional reporting by Sean Teehan and Abby Seiff

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