The National Assembly will begin its debate next week on a draft law to create a new investigative body to tackle money laundering and terrorism financing.
But a provision in the law requiring lawyers to turn over all information investigators ask for without a court order raised concerns that the new body will impinge on the basic legal principle of attorney-client privilege.
According to a copy of the draft law obtained Thursday, the new investigative body will be formed by the National Bank of Cambodia and will be composed of one representative each from the bank, the Council of Ministers and the Interior, Justice and Finance ministries.
The new body—which was not given an official name in the document—will have broad powers to probe a swath of institutions including banks, insurance companies, realtors, auditors, casinos, accountants, NGOs and lawyers.
Under the law, institutions must report any suspect transactions to the investigating authority. Transactions that are suspected to be involved in funding terrorism must be reported to investigators within 24 hours.
Any money laundering or terror financing assets seized by the government will become state property if the suspects are convicted by the courts.
According to the draft: “The secrecy of a bank or any other profession will not be excluded from the implementation of this law…. Nor can [privileged information] be used as a basis to deny providing information to the financial investigation institute.”
Phan Ho, deputy director of the National Bank, said the legislation was simply to combat criminals.
He added that lawyers who manage property for clients who are suspected of money laundering or terrorism financing must turn over any information requested of them.
“This is a special law—lawyers must provide the information,” Phan Ho said, adding that banks also have a code of conduct that forbids them sharing such information, but they will have to comply with the investigators as well.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the legislation could be damaging to the legal profession in Cambodia.
“If the law is passed it will harm the lawyer,” he said. “To protect himself, the lawyer must not keep any records.”
Lor Chunthy, legal vice director at Legal Aid of Cambodia, said that lawyers’ code of conduct and professional ethics prevented them from providing their clients’ confidential material to a second party.
“We work for their interests,” he said. “Even the court cannot force us to hand over evidence.”
According to the draft law, any individual that declines to provide the requested information to the new investigative body could be imprisoned for six days to one month and fined $25 to $250.