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Penal Law hits Assembly floor despite free-speech concerns

Penal Law hits Assembly floor despite free-speech concerns

091002_04
Two prisoners are escorted from Phnom Penh Municipal Court. A draft Penal Code now before the National Assembly is set to overhaul the Kingdom’s criminal justice system.

THE National Assembly has agreed to open debate on the government’s long-awaited draft Penal Code, paving the way for its adoption in the coming weeks, but opposition lawmakers expressed concern that the code, if approved as is, will restrict freedom of expression and chill dissent.

In a session on Thursday, 12 lawmakers from the Sam Rainsy Party called for amendments to 43 of the Code’s 472 articles, arguing that sections on defamation offered vague definitions, posing a threat to free speech.

“We are concerned about many articles that would be restrictions on freedom of expression because the draft code sets up defamation and insults as criminal [charges],” SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann told the Assembly.

He said that freedom of expression was a basic right, ensuring citizens’ ability to speak out on issues such as poverty, unemployment, land disputes and corruption.

However, 83 parliamentarians from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party blocked opposition requests for an amendment to the draft, saying the request did not follow parliamentary regulations.

“We are the ruling party, and we have considered every aspect of the new Penal Code,” senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said during the session.

The long-awaited Penal Code is set to be debated in the National Assembly from today. If passed, which is almost certain given the CPP holds more than the required two-thirds majority, it will replace the law passed by UNTAC in 1992.

Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana explained to the Assembly that the new code was drafted with support from French legal experts, and was based on international principles of the law, with Cambodia’s current situation in mind.

He added that its passage would be followed by a training campaign to bring judges up to speed on the new law.

Ou Virak, president of Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that he hoped defamation would be removed from the code, citing a February 2006 promise from Prime Minister Hun Sen that it would be excluded.

“I am also concerned that if defamation appears in the Penal Code it could affect the work of civil society [activists] who deal in advocacy,” he said.

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