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National Assembly Approves Penal Code

The National Assembly on Monday passed a crucial penal code that government officials hailed as historic, but which others warn could be used to curb freedoms.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the passage of the penal code was a prerequisite to a much-awaiting anti-corruption law that donors have pressed for in recent years.

The penal code passed 99-3, following an eight-day debate.

Addressing the National Assembly Monday, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana called the day “historic” for “supporting the process of the rule of law.”

“The passage of the new penal code shows the strong commitment and will of the government in building a legally strong and detailed framework for the basis of the rule of law for our country,” he said.

Opposition lawmakers had argued the law did not uphold rights to free speech and assembly, making it easy for defamation and other attacks in the courts.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party, said its lawmakers “would like to completely support the penal code…but we still have worries about some articles relating to freedom of expression and assembly.”

Kem Sokhan, president of the Human Rights Party, whose three parliamentarians did not vote for passage of the law, called the draft a “two-faced weapon” that could condemn offenders of the law, but, improperly weilded, “could affect the rights and freedom of expression for people.”

However, Sok Eysan, lawmaker for the Cambodian People’s Party, said during Monday’s session the party hoped the law would take away problems that “used to appear,” such as defamation and incitement.

Sok Samoeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said a weak judiciary was still a concern with the new law.

“We await implementation of the penal code,” he said.