Funcinpec lawmakers Wednesday effectively blocked a proposal to allow authorities to detain captured Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok for up to five years before trial, instead of the six months mandated under current law.
The lawmakers on the Funcinpec-majority legislation committee at the National Assembly said they need more time to study the proposal, which would amend article 14 of Cambodia’s penal code and would apply to all “suspected war criminals.’’
Human rights workers, meanwhile, continued to attack the proposal, arguing it could be abused to lock up innocent people without a fair trial.
The delay drew angry protests from CPP lawmakers and led to three hours of contentious debate. They demanded immediate passage to allow the government more time to prepare its case against Ta Mok, who must be tried under current law sometime next month.
“I worry that we will not have enough time to pass this amendment,’’ Ek Sam Ol, the ranking CPP member of the legislation commission, said.
Forty-two CPP National Assembly members recently signed a petition calling for an emergency session to consider amending Article 14.
Ta Mok was arrested in February and the legally-stated deadline for his prosecution or release is fast approaching, creating a potential crisis.
Although there are mounds of evidence proving Ta Mok at the very least violated a law banning membership in the Khmer Rouge, prosecutors recently announced they have not yet been able to build a case against the notorious rebel chief.
Tol Lah, deputy prime minister and a senior Funcinpec member, said in recent days he instructed legally trained Funcinpec lawmakers to gather for meetings to analyze the proposal. Prior to Wednesday’s committee meeting, he asked CPP officials to give his party more time to study the proposal.
“Of course we are concerned about this law,’’ Tol Lah said Wednesday. “It is very important legislation. But that doesn’t mean we won’t support it. We just need more time to discuss it.’’
Human rights groups have soundly criticized the legislation.
“It’s very dangerous to have this kind of amendment,” said Kek Galabru, president of Licadho.
“I’m afraid the innocent will pay the bill. It’s so easy to say a person was involved in the Khmer Rouge and then say they committed genocide. If you want to hold someone for five years all you have to do is accuse them of being Khmer Rouge.’’
Galabru blamed the current crisis on the incompetence of Ta Mok’s prosecutors, not time constraints. If Ta Mok was arrested legally, the government should have had a warrant, she argued. And “if you issue a warrant you’re supposed to have evidence,’’ she said.
Monh Saphan, the Funcinpec-appointed chairman of the legislation committee, noted that Cambodia’s penal code was written by Untac before the National Assembly was created.
He suggested international experts who helped draft the law should be consulted, though he added that such a prospect is unlikely ‘‘because Cambodia has its own sovereignty.’’
Ek Sam Ol suggested Funcinpec lawmakers were stalling because “maybe they have no green light from their boss.’’
A spokesman for Assembly President and Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh said he also is opposed to the “emergency’’ passage of the amendment. He told UN Special Representative Lakhan Mehrotra Wednesday that legal experts are studying the proposal, the spokesman said.