The National Assembly is preparing to debate a sweeping draft law on counterterrorism aimed at protecting Cambodia’s air and sea ports, controlling the handling of nuclear materials and suppressing the financing of terrorism, according to a copy of the draft.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, chair of the National Assembly’s commission on national defense, said Monday that he hoped to have the 111-article draft law before his commission next week. The legislation should be put to a vote in parliament before the end of the current session in December or January, he said.
Yim Sovann declined comment on the draft’s contents before the commission begins to discuss it. But he said that counterterrorism is of vital importance in Cambodia.
“Terrorism is a universal issue,” he said. “Cambodia needs this law to defend from terrorism,” he added. “We don’t want it to happen in Cambodia. It would negatively affect the tourism sector.”
The draft, which contains appendices specifying categories of enrichment for fissile nuclear material, is a grand departure from the country’s 1-page, 4-article 1992 law on terrorism that is currently in force.
Em Sam An, secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior and head of Cambodia’s National and International Antiterrorism Secretariat, said the draft was written with both Cambodians and the international community in mind.
“This law was designed for Cambodian people in our country,” he said in a recent interview. “The law is written to protect not only the international community, investments and diplomats, but it is for protecting our people from terrorists.”
The Council of Ministers approved the draft on July 7 following collaboration that began over a year earlier between Cambodian and Australian government officials. Officials from the two countries wrote the draft with funding from the British government, according to officials and news reports.
Under the law, acts including the seizure and attack of offshore oil wells would carry penalties of between five years and life in jail.
Foreign heads of state, diplomats and other “internationally protected persons” and their families would be specifically protected under clauses that provide similar penalties for their murder, kidnapping, and for damage to embassies.
The draft law would require penalties of between five years and life in prison for acts such as hijacking air and sea craft or damaging navigation facilities.
Cambodia currently has extradition treaties with only three nations, China, Thailand and Laos. However, the draft law would require Cambodia to extradite people suspected of terrorism-related crimes in other countries if the requesting country agrees to do the same with suspects sought by Cambodia in the future.
Em Sam An and Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana both denied that the law was more the work of Australian experts than of Cambodian officials.
However, the Associated Press and Australian Associated Press reported in May 2005 that much of the draft law was in fact written by a team of officials from the Australian Attorney General’s Department.
Both the British and Australian embassies last week declined to answer detailed questions about the draft’s contents but said they welcomed its progress toward ratification.
“Basically, the Cambodian government asked us to help them meet their international obligations” under the UN’s counterterrorism conventions, a British Embassy official said.
“The overriding goal was to ensure Cambodia was prepared to combat terrorism and that international and other law enforcement authorities could cooperate with their Cambodian colleagues when investigating terrorist activity with a Cambodian connection,” the official added.
The law would bring Cambodia into compliance with 13 UN conventions and protocols that concern matters such as air and sea travel, hostage-taking and the protection of nuclear materials, as well as three UN Security Council resolutions, according to the draft.
“The new law will enable Cambodia to participate more effectively in international counterterrorism efforts,” the Australian Embassy said in a statement. “Australia welcomes the opportunity to be able to assist Cambodia with the new legislation.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said the threat terrorism poses may not be as great for Cambodia as for other countries.
But terrorism remains a pressing concern that is best addressed before, rather than after the fact, he said.
Heraldo Munoz, Chile’s ambassador to the UN and former chair of the UN Security Council’s committee on al-Qaida, warned in October 2004 that Cambodia could become a base of operations for the regional terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah.
Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian man better known as Hambali who was reportedly the group’s chief of operations, was sentenced by a Cambodian court in absentia to life in prison in December of 2004 for plotting to bomb the US and British embassies in Phnom Penh.
Hambali spent several months in Phnom Penh in 2002 and 2003 before being arrested in Thailand.
However, the US State Department reported in May that there were currently no indications of terrorist activity in Cambodia, despite a number of circumstances, such as poverty and disgruntlement among the Cham Muslim population, which it said made Cambodia a potential security risk.
“For Cambodia, we are making the fence before the cows and the buffalo [get] lost,” Khieu Sopheak said. “Theoretically speaking, the terrorists will not spare any country. It is better to prevent than to cure.”
Under the draft, courts may order that property be seized and assets frozen if there are “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the property is intended for use in terrorism. Such seizures can occur even when no arrests have been made or charges filed, the draft states.
The legislation would also allow prosecutors and investigating judges to monitor telephone lines and access computer systems for up to two months.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said last week that he had not reviewed the law but recognized the need for detailed legislation on terrorism. However, it is possible the government may use the new law toward political ends, he warned.
“It is easy for the government to accuse anyone,” he said. “All these things can help the government to suppress the opposition.”
Margo Picken, country coordinator for the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Monday that her office had not yet reviewed the draft but stressed that antiterrorism laws must not infringe on civil liberties.
“All antiterrorist legislation must fully comply with the international human rights treaties that bind Cambodia,” she said.
Ang Vong Vathana, who said he participated in drafting the new law, reacted angrily to the suggestion that the government could be tempted to use the law to suppress political opponents.
“When things happen, how will those people react?” he said, adding: “We are obligated to respect international conventions.”