Article 51 Amended, But Remains ‘Unclear’

With the deletion of a few words, National Assembly members Tuesday passed an amended version of article 51 of the civil servants code that is, at best, vague about how much time may pass between a government employee’s arrest and when the worker’s boss must be notified.

Though it states that department heads must be told within 72 hours of charges being filed against an employee, the law gives no indication when an arrest can be made relative to the 72-hour notification.

Previously, article 51 had protected employees of the state suspected of a crime by mandating that permission to arrest them had to be obtained from their bosses.

Opposition party parliamentarians argued that the amended law provides enough time between the department head’s notification and the actual arrest to allow the accused to escape.

Human rights workers, who in the past blasted the law for protecting government officials, said they are confused about the newly worded legislation and what it means for accountability in government.

“It seems to be written in a way that is unclear. We’ll have to wait and see how the courts interpret it,” said a human rights worker.

Fearing another walk-out by opposition party parliamentarians, National Assembly Vice President Heng Samrin quickly pushed through the vote on the amended article 51, which then passed overwhelmingly despite protests from Sam Rainsy Party members.

Though Sam Rainsy Party members, who on Monday prevented the National Assembly from voting on article 51 by leaving, tried to again debate the law, the meeting was called to a close almost immediately following the vote—causing parliamentarian Son Chhay to call the proceedings “a big joke.”

Opposition party members and human rights workers have been critical of article 51 throughout the approval process, saying the 72-hour notification period may allow a department head to warn an employee of an impending arrest.

In the Senate on Tuesday lawmakers passed by a 44-5 vote a change to detention law, piggy-backing off the National Assem­bly’s earlier approval of a three-year pre-trial detention period for war crimes suspects.

Supporters of the changes to article 14 of the penal code say the extended period of time is needed to gather evidence against former Khmer Rouge leaders who are thought to be responsible for mass killings in the late 1970s.

Some critics, primarily Sam Rainsy Party members, claim the law allows government officials, many of whom are former Khmer Rouge members, to effectively ignore their possibly criminal pasts. Others, including the UN rights center here, said it violates international standards of justice to hold suspects for three years without trial.

(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)

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