Licadho Criticizes Penal Code on Freedom of Expression Issues

On the eve of Human Rights Day, rights group Licadho yesterday released scathing criticism of Cambodia’s new Penal Code, substantive portions of which come into effect today.

Licadho has identified nine Penal Code provisions it says may pose a “serious threat to Cambodians’ expressive rights,” the group said in a statement.

It gives as an example Article 502, titled “Contempt,” which criminalizes any act, gesture, writing, drawing or object directed at a public official that affects the “dignity of a person.” It carries a prison sentence of one to six days, and a fine of between 1,000 and 100,000 riel.

Licadho’s criticism reads: “Elements are vague and highly subjective; taken to the extreme the article could criminalize all acts which hurt the feelings of public officials.”

Ham Sunrith, the organization’s deputy director of monitoring and protection, added he was concerned this article could be used to quash dissent over electoral procedure.

“It includes people who work for elections, so remarking that an election was unfair could be a crime,” he said.

Also of serious concern, the statement says, are Article 522, making it a crime to publish comments intended to influence a court, and Article 523, which prohibits criticizing a judicial decision after the fact. Both carry a prison sentence of one to six months, and a fine of 100,000 to 1 million riel.

“The scope of these provisions is breathtaking,” said Pung Chhiv Kek, president of Licadho. “Articles 522 and 523, for example, could potentially criminalize any criticism of the judiciary.”

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, declined to comment on specific criticisms of the law. But he said if Licadho felt it was flawed, they should lodge a formal complaint with the courts.

“If they think a law abuses the people or is unconstitutional, they have to file to court,” he said. “Complaining does not help…. It just makes a noise.”

Also yesterday, groups across the country prepared to mark Human Rights Day. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, along with the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, was scheduled to perform three songs yesterday evening for Human Rights Day by Cambodian artists.

Friends of December 10th, a coalition working to support local initiatives to mark the day, said more than 20,000 Cambodians across the nation at more than 60 events would celebrate the date, and released a list of 38 “Human Rights Defenders Currently in Detention.”

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