In an unprecedented reversal of an earlier vote, the National Assembly Wednesday approved an amendment to Cambodia’s penal code, giving police the authority to detain suspects 24 hours beyond the two days previously allowed without charges.
With Wednesday’s vote following Monday’s change to another section of the penal code that expand s the influence of civil servants over the judiciary, critics are calling this week’s policy-making a double-barreled shot at civil liberties.
Lawmakers met during the morning, outlining specific conditions for the longer detention that were missing from the original amendment debated Tuesday, before passing—some grudgingly—the revised version by an 81 to 5 margin.
“I’m not 100 percent happy, but I can accept this,” Funcinpec legislator Khok Buddhi said.
Though supporters claim the revised amendment will give police more time to investigate serious crimes like homicides or drug trafficking, its opponents say the longer detention period could lead to rights abuses while suspects are in custody.
“It will not solve problems because police are unqualified,” opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said. “In fact, this extension could be used to beat up suspects, torture them to solicit confession.”
Funcinpec lawmakers, who mustered enough strength to see the original proposal killed by three votes Tuesday, continued to dispute the revised legislation, saying it doesn’t protect suspects under the age of 13, who receive no special treatment.
“This amendment will result in human rights abuses, especially with underage people,” assembly member Keo Remy said.
But co-Interior Minister You Hockry said the amendment was needed because the current detention period is not enough for police to complete investigations.
On many occasions, he said, court prosecutors had to drop charges against suspects because of the “weak bases” on which police made their cases.
The amendment follows Monday’s passage of another penal code revision giving broad police powers to civil servants, including commune chiefs, and district and provincial governors.
This amendment puts civil servants on the same level as the judiciary, so they can “have the ability to order or advise and instruct judicial police officials within their own territory to make operations on an offender,” the legislation states.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said on Monday local civil servants need to be given these new powers so they are aware of what is happening in their own administrative areas and can “suggest how to solve legal problems.”
But others fear what they claim is a harmful blurring of the lines between governance and law enforcement. This becomes especially dangerous as the country leads up to commune elections next year that will see many newly-empowered commune chiefs challenged by political opponents.
“Doing this is going to result in a police state,” Khmer Institute Executive Director Lao Mong Hay said. “It’s not necessary for civil servants to become judicial police officers. If they put too many inside the judiciary it will be useless. In the end no one takes responsibility.”
(Additional reporting by the Associated Press)