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Cambodia: Criminalizing Denial of Atrocities

(June 12, 2013) On June 7, 2013, the National Assembly of Cambodia adopted legislation criminalizing the denial of the Khmer Rouge regime’s atrocities. Violation of the new law could result in a sentence of up to two years in prison. In addition, in theory the new law could make it impossible for former Khmer Rouge members to serve in high office. (Faine Greenwood, Cambodia Passes Law Banning Genocide Denial, GLOBAL POST (June 7, 2013).)

The vote was unanimous among those legislators that were present, but minority representatives, from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), had been excluded from the legislature. (G. Redd, Cambodia Criminalizes Denial of Khmer Rouge Atrocities, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (June 7, 2013).) The expulsion of the members resulted when a committee controlled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the ruling group, stated that the opposition assembly members had to depart because they had left their prior political parties to join a new, combined party in advance of the July 2013 general elections. (Cambodian Legislators Pass Bill Making Denial of Khmer Rouge Atrocities a Crime, THE WASHINGTON POST (June 7, 2013).)

Speaking about the legislation, Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the CPP, said that he wants to be able to punish anyone who denies that during the 1970s the regime then in power committed atrocities that are reported to have resulted in 1.7 million deaths. (Redd, supra.) The bill has been criticized by the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch as a political mechanism, designed to make it seem that the CNRP is sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge in general. Hun Sen’s additional remark, for example, that some of the views of CNRP on the banking system are similar to those of the Khmer Rouge, is interpreted by some observers as having such a political motivation. (Id.)

The legislation did follow a controversial statement by an opposition leader. Ken Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, claimed on May 20 that the museum about the Khmer Rouge genocide, in the former Tuol Sleng prison of Phnom Penh, has a “staged” exhibit. He later explained that his statement was taken out of context and that he did not doubt “the torture and cruelty that the Khmer Rouge inflicted on Khmer people.” (Abby Seiff, The Denial Law Dilemma, THE PHNOM PENH POST (June 7, 2013).)

While a number of other nations have laws criminalizing denial of past crimes against humanity and other atrocities, in most cases there is a reference in the nation’s constitution prohibiting such denial. Panhavuth Long, a program officer of the Cambodian Justice Initiative, speaking before the bill passed, said that is not the case in Cambodia. “According to the constitution, every law has to be in line with the constitution. … That kind of proposed law [punishing denial] violates the principle of freedom of expression.” (Id.) The Cambodian Justice Initiative is described as “working with Cambodians to ensure that the trials of the surviving former leaders of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime are independent, legitimate, and fair, and perceived as such, in order to bring justice to the victims of the Khmer Rouge mass atrocities.” (Cambodia Justice Initiative, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia website (last visited June 10, 2013).)