By Sopheng Cheang, AP
June 10, 2013
Cambodia's National Assembly approved a bill on Friday making it a
crime to deny that atrocities were committed by the country's genocidal
1970s Khmer Rouge regime, a law that critics allege will be used as a
weapon against the political opposition.
The assembly passed the
bill unanimously in the absence of opposition lawmakers, who were
expelled from the legislature last week. A committee controlled by the
ruling Cambodian People's Party said the opposition legislators must
relinquish their seats because they had left their old parties to join a
new, merged party to contest the country's general election in July.
recently established Cambodia National Rescue Party faces an uphill
battle against Prime Minister Hun Sen's well-organized, well-financed
political machine. It is already handicapped by having its leader, Sam
Rainsy, in self-exile to avoid jail on what are widely seen as
politically motivated charges. Hun Sen's party, which holds 90 seats in
the assembly, is expected to win an overwhelming share of the 123 seats
The expulsion of the 28 opposition lawmakers from the
assembly hurts their ability to campaign by depriving them of their
salaries as well as their parliamentary immunity from arrest. The
government aggressively uses defamation laws to punish the kind of
critical remarks that would be common in an election campaign.
Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985, called for the new law
after a leading opposition lawmaker reportedly suggested that some of
the evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities was fabricated by Vietnam, whose
army invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Hun Sen was once a Khmer Rouge cadre, and his political allies include people linked by scholars to Khmer Rouge atrocities.
Cambodia National Rescue Party said it was "disappointed" by the bill's
passage and felt it was illegal because the expulsion of its lawmakers
left the assembly without the quorum needed to pass legislation.
also suggested that any such law should not allow former Khmer Rouge
leaders to hold high positions in society, including prime minister and
the presidents of the National Assembly and Senate. Like Hun Sen,
National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim
are former Khmer Rouge members.
The radical policies of the
communist Khmer Rouge are generally held responsible for the deaths of
1.7 million people from execution, overwork, disease and malnutrition. A
U.N.-assisted tribunal is currently trying two of the group's surviving
former leaders on charges of genocide and other crimes. Hun Sen has
sought to block the tribunal from holding trials of any more suspects.
bill approved Friday must go through several more pro forma stages
before becoming law. It would punish anyone denying that crimes were
committed by the Khmer Rouge with imprisonment of six months to two
"Not recognizing the crimes constitutes an insult to the souls of
those who died during the (Khmer Rouge) regime and brings suffering to
the surviving family members of the victims," government lawmaker Cheam
Yeap told the National Assembly, saying the law would help people recall
their bitter history, bring justice for the victims and help prevent a
repetition of the events.
Youk Chhang, director of Documentation
Center, an independent office that documents Khmer Rouge atrocities,
said the law "poses the risk of politicizing the incredibly difficult
process of reconciliation that Cambodia has been struggling with for the
past 30 years."
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for
Human Rights, said his group believes it is not necessary to have a law
that prohibits denials that serious crimes were committed under the
"Restricting debate, discussion and education about
the Khmer Rouge period through such a law would be to the detriment of
survivors, rather than for their benefit," he said in a statement. "The
law is therefore a blatant politicization of our country's history in
order to score points before the national elections."
Asia director for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, called Hun
Sen's advocacy of the law "entirely election-related."
tool to try to intimidate the opposition but also to galvanize his side,
to demonize the opposition as unfit to govern, and to show that he's in
charge, to show the country that he can completely dominate the
opposition. And make them squirm," Adams said.
proposing the law, Hun Sen's government sought political gain from the
issue by having pro-government media publicize the remarks by Kem Sokha,
deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, that some
exhibits at Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng genocide museum -- once a Khmer
Rouge torture camp -- were faked by the Vietnamese, even though the
camp's commander confessed to atrocities there and was found guilty by
the U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal.
Kem Sokha's party said his words had been distorted and taken out of context.