The Council of Ministers on Friday approved the new penal code, which should pave the way for the government to move forward with the long-awaited anticorruption law, officials said Sunday.
The penal code, drafted by the Ministry of Justice, defines crimes and their respective punishments and will be sent to the National Assembly this week for review, said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. As soon as the new criminal code has been approved by the Assembly, the draft law on anticorruption will be submitted to the council, he added.
“The draft law will protect the public interest [and] the National Assembly must approve the penal code first before the anticorruption law,” because the penal code will also apply to the graft law, Mr Siphan said.
An assistant to Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana referred all questions to Secretary of State Hy Sopheap, who took part in drafting the new penal code, but he declined to comment when reached by a reporter.
The penal code, which has been based on laws from France and Germany, consists of 15 chapters and 672 articles and will eventually replace the penal code currently in use, which was established by UN Transitional Authority in 1992, according to a statement released by the Council of Ministers Friday. The relatively barebones 1992 penal code was meant for use during the transitional period, but has remained in force and largely unchanged since the Untac period ended in 1993.
“The Council of Ministers has approved the penal code draft law…in order to respond to needs…in the modern day with effectiveness [and] in order to ensure protections of peoples’ freedom, dignity, social security and public order. [The] law was organized based on three big foundations in Cambodia: The cultural penal law, the existing penal code and new challenges,” the council statement said.
The absence of an updated penal code has been repeatedly cited by the government as the main reason why the state has not yet passed an anticorruption law. The first drafted anti-graft legislation reached the National Assembly in 1994 but was never passed, and several other drafts have circulated through the offices of government for almost 15 years. The anticorruption law has been a donor benchmark since 2002 and calls have been made to make aid contingent on the government passing the law. The latest known draft of the anticorruption law was reportedly finalized in August 2008 but it is not clear if any changes have been made since.
Representatives of donor countries reached Sunday said they were cautiously optimistic regarding the new penal code but that they would wait and see until the new draft is signed into law before they comment.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that as soon as the penal code is approved by the National Assembly and the Senate and signed by King Norodom Sihamoni, the government will start the process for passing the anticorruption law.
“This is the step for the anticorruption law to become reality,” Mr Yeap said, but added that he doesn’t believe passage of an anti-graft law will stop donor countries and rights groups from criticizing the government.
It is a positive step for the government to approve the new penal code and start the process for the anticorruption law, said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. But, he said, he was worried that the draft code had been kept a secret and that the government had not allowed rights groups and donor countries to review the legislation.
“It is a good sign, but my concern is that the draft penal code has now passed through the [council] but not through civil society. We have asked many times but [the government] say it is confidential. It should be the official position of the government to actually make the draft public and seek advice from civil society,” Mr Virak said.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc said he was looking forward to the draft anticorruption law to be passed but that he was worried about the content of that proposed law since it has also been kept largely secret by the government.
“I think that many people would like to see this law passed, but the content of the law, I don’t know yet,” he said. “But if [the anticorruption law] is weak then it will not have an impact, and even if the law will be good, we have to also confirm about the [implementation abilities of] law enforcement agencies.”
Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries is the world according to international corruption watchdogs. In 2008, Cambodia was ranked 166 out of 180 countries assessed by Transparency International’s Corrupt Perceptions Index, scoring just 1.8 on a scale of 0 to 10. Only Burma scored worse in the region.