A law that criminalizes the denial of Khmer Rouge atrocities passed unanimously and unilaterally at the National Assembly on Friday, while opposition politicians who were stripped of their positions on Wednesday were told they now face legal action for asking that the debate be postponed.
The 27 opposition SRP and Human Rights Party (HRP) lawmakers, who were expelled from the 123-seat Parliament last week, used official National Assembly stationery to submit their written request that the vote be delayed until after the July 28 election.
On Friday, a ruling party parliamentarian said he would now seek prosecution of the 27 expelled parliamentarians for using the official stationery when they were no longer members of the assembly.
Eighty-four lawmakers from the ruling CPP and two from its junior partner Funcinpec spent just two hours pushing the five-article Law on the Denial of Crimes Committed During the Period of Democratic Kampuchea through the assembly during the specially convened session.
They denied that the haste with which the law was drawn up and passed was for political gain ahead of the election.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who attended Friday’s session, said the law would prevent people from belittling the victims of the regime, which was led by Pol Pot and ruled the country from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979.
“To deny crimes shows critical contempt of the spirits of the victims who died in that regime, and will cause utmost pain to victims’ families who are still alive,” he said.
“The basic consciousness for the creation of this law, which includes those who refuse to acknowledge, diminish, deny or challenge the existence of crimes or glorify crimes committed during the period of Democratic Kampuchea cannot be considered as freedom of expression,” Mr. Yeap said during the brief National Assembly debate.
The law was drawn up in response to a call from Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 27, who spoke out after acting Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha alleged in a speech that the notorious S-21 prison, where at least 12,000 people perished, was a construct of the Vietnamese.
CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who has been at the helm of drafting the law, on Friday lashed out at the group of former opposition parliamentarians who had sent a letter to National Assembly President Heng Samrin, asking that debate of the law be postponed until after the elections.
“They are no longer parliamentarians…but they used the logo of the National Assembly in the letter,” Mr. Vun said. “This means that they stole and used documents from the National Assembly.”
He added that the expelled opposition lawmakers continue to wear their National Assembly lapel pins while abroad, and that he has asked Mr. Samrin to address the matter, because it is a punishable offense.
“It is a penal case, because they stole National Assembly documents to use when they are no longer parliamentarians,” he said of the stationery on which the opposition’s letter was penned.
“They will face legal action if the permanent commission takes action, which I think it will,” he said.
Reached by telephone after he returned from a meeting with party president Sam Rainsy in Singapore, CNRP spokesman and former SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said the National Assembly vote on Friday had been unconstitutional, and he said any attempts to penalize the expelled opposition lawmakers would destabilize the country.
“I think the Cambodian National Assembly is now invalid, because according to the Constitution, it requires at least 120 people to [form a quorum and] become a National Assembly,” he said. “Now they removed members of Parliament from the SRP and HRP, and now the number of parliamentarians is only 95, so everything approved by the illegal and invalid National Assembly is null and void.”
Mr. Sovann said passing the law without the presence or input of opposition party members undermined the will of the voters who elected them.
“It is they who steal votes from voters who are supporting the opposition party,” he said, adding that the threatened legal action would lead “to social crisis and the breakdown of our country.”
HRP President Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council of Cambodia, said there could be no loose interpretation of the Constitution, which states clearly that the National Assembly can only exist if its 123 seats are filled.
“The National Assembly is the National Assembly when there are 123 members, otherwise it is void and not valid,” he said. “The law is void because there is no National Assembly any more.
“It is not only unconstitutional, but a joke, because they do not respect the Constitution,” Mr. Soubert added.
“The citizens are worried, because if the ruling party is violating the Constitution, then it’s very dangerous—it opens the door to violations and upheaval.”
In an open letter to Mr. Samrin on Friday, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Program, Polly Truscott, said the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes law would undermine not only the right to freedom of expression, but also proceedings currently before the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“Vague and sweeping laws that criminalize opinion and speech about historical facts contravene international human rights obligations and commitments to freedom of expression,” Ms. Truscott said.
Ms. Truscott said that efforts made to encourage people to speak about the Pol Pot regime could be undermined by the law, “as people become scared of talking about the Khmer Rouge period for fear of saying anything that amounts to a crime under the proposed new law.”
It could also affect research into the era if there are fears that new findings could “upset the historical narrative approved by the government,” as well as dissuading “already anxious” witnesses from testifying about certain events for fear of reprisals.
The National Assembly on Friday also adopted a law, consisting of three articles, on the protection of cultural properties during armed conflict.