CPP lawmakers on Wednesday stepped back from using the word “genocide” to talk about a pending law that would criminalize the denial of Khmer Rouge crimes, after repeatedly using the word to describe—and even name—the bill.
Prime Minister Hun Sen first called for the law on May 27, only days after the government released audio of opposition leader Kem Sokha apparently claiming that the jailing and torture of thousands of Cambodians at the notorious Khmer Rouge prison of Tuol Sleng were fabricated by Vietnam.
Speaking to supporters in Phnom Penh, the prime minister specifically used the Khmer words for genocide, which literally translate as “the crime of killing a race.”
By the time the party had the bill drafted on Friday, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun also used the Khmer word for genocide in announcing the bill’s title: The Denial of Genocide Committed in the Period of Democratic Kampuchea.
But the title of a draft obtained Tuesday does not use the Khmer word for genocide and only refers to “crimes” committed under the Pol Pot regime.
On Wednesday, Mr. Vun denied ever having used the phrase in the title.
“I have never given this name,” he claimed.
Mr. Vun said the draft law deliberately avoids using the term genocide because the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal has so far not ruled on whether or not genocide actually took place in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.
“The court is working out whether genocide, mass killing and suffering took place,” he said. “We have called the regime genocidal, but what kind of genocide took place we will let the court decide.”
Legally, genocide refers to efforts to destroy in whole or in part any ethnic, religious, national or racial group. At the ongoing Khmer Rouge tribunal, the charge of genocide is ever more specific, referring only to the attempt to exterminate ethnic Cham and Vietnamese people.
CPP lawmaker Chheam Yeap, who also helped write the bill, said Wednesday that the draft law had never carried the exact Khmer term for genocide in its title or anywhere else. However, the general word for crimes in Khmer still encompassed genocide.
“Crime here means the crimes against humanity, genocide and mass killing. We couldn’t put all this in because it would make the title too long,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, however, a lawyer and head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the government was clearly trying to distance itself from the loaded word since Mr. Hun Sen first proposed the law.
“Maybe they heard some expert advice,” he said. “After their understanding of this word, they will not use it because the definition of genocide is very complicated.”
The danger in the word, Mr. Sam Oeun said, was that the court decides to acquit the defendants of genocide and at the same time the country has a law banning the denial of genocide.
“The [court] may not convict anyone on genocide crimes because the definition is very specific,” he said.
Mr. Sam Oeun said that Cambodians’ use of the broader meaning of genocide as a “crime” owes much to Vietnam, which toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979 and occupied the country for the next 10 years.
In a 2001 article for research NGO the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), eminent Khmer Rouge scholar David Chandler said the Vietnamese were keen to use the phrase loosely to justify what they did.
“It was important for them to base the legitimacy of their presence in Cambodia, and the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea government [which followed the Khmer Rouge], on the fact that they had freed Cambodia from the ‘genocidal clique’ of Pol Pot and Ieng Sary,” he said.
It also helped Vietnam put some distance between Khmer Rouge crimes from its own crimes and those of its allies, Mr. Chandler added.
“It was important for the Vietnamese to argue that what had happened in Cambodia under [Democratic Kampuchea], and particularly at S-21, was genocide, resembling the Holocaust in World War II rather than the assassinations of political enemies that at different times had marked the history of the Soviet Union, Communist China and Vietnam,” he said.
But even with the term genocide out of the draft, the law still has many critics.
The draft proposes jail terms of up to two years and fines of up to $1,000 for those who “refuse to acknowledge, diminish, deny or challenge the existence of crimes or glorify crimes committed during the period of Democratic Kampuchea” in line with provisions and practices at the ongoing Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Legal entities that do the same, whether private firms or political parties, could face fines of up to $125,000 and other punishments, from court supervision to dissolution.
Mr. Sokha, acting president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), has denied calling Tuol Sleng a Vietnamese invention and accused the government of doctoring recordings of his speeches to score political points ahead of July’s national election. His party warns that the government will use the new law, as it has allegedly used others on defamation and disinformation, to continue to stifle free speech and go after its critics.
The CNRP is not alone in its concerns regarding the law.
“It represents some serious risks to the freedom of speech in Cambodia,” said Christopher Dearing, a legal adviser to DC-Cam.
Although most of the European laws on Holocaust denial cited by the government place conditions on how that denial is used, Cambodia’s draft, Mr. Dearing warned, does not.
“It not only prohibits the denial of genocide, but almost any form of expression that ‘diminishes’ the existence of ‘a crime’ under ECCC law,” he said. “Most importantly, it does not appear to condition the restrictions on speech in terms of the concepts of hate, insult or injury. Mere denial, diminishment or refusal to acknowledge a crime would violate the law.”
If the government does go ahead with the law, he suggested it at least add an academic exception so teachers cannot run afoul of the state. For example, teachers should still be allowed to show Khmer Rouge propaganda in classrooms for historical reasons.
Citing Rwanda, which bans the denial of genocide in its Constitution, Mr. Dearing recalled the case of a defense attorney at the International Criminal Tribunal there convicted for comments he made in court.
“Is that going to happen in Cambodia?” he said. “It gives you an idea of how broadly these kinds of laws can be interpreted.”
(Additional reporting by Dene-Hern Chen)
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