PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's National Assembly approved a bill on Friday making it a crime to deny that atrocities were committed by the country's genocidal 1970s Khmer Rouge regime, a law that critics allege will be used as a weapon against the political opposition.
The assembly passed the bill unanimously in the absence of opposition lawmakers, who were expelled from the legislature this week. A committee controlled by the ruling Cambodian People's Party said the opposition legislators must relinquish their seats because they had left their old parties to join a new, merged party to contest the country's general election in July.
The recently established Cambodia National Rescue Party faces an uphill battle against Prime Minister Hun Sen's well-organized, well-financed political machine. It is already handicapped by having its leader, Sam Rainsy, in self-exile to avoid jail on what are widely seen as politically motivated charges. Hun Sen's party, which holds 90 seats in the assembly, is expected to win an overwhelming share of the 123 seats at stake.
The expulsion of the 28 opposition lawmakers from the assembly hurts their ability to campaign by depriving them of their salaries as well as their parliamentary immunity from arrest. The government aggressively uses defamation laws to punish the kind of critical remarks that would be common in an election campaign.
Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985, called for the new law after a leading opposition lawmaker reportedly suggested that some of the evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities was fabricated by Vietnam, whose army invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Hun Sen was once a Khmer Rouge cadre, and his political allies include people linked by scholars to Khmer Rouge atrocities.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party said it was "disappointed" by the bill's passage and felt it was illegal because the expulsion of its lawmakers left the assembly without the quorum needed to pass legislation.
It also suggested that any such law should not allow former Khmer Rouge leaders to hold high positions in society, including prime minister and the presidents of the National Assembly and Senate. Like Hun Sen, National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Senate President Chea Sim are former Khmer Rouge members.
The radical policies of the communist Khmer Rouge are generally held responsible for the deaths of 1.7 million people from execution, overwork, disease and malnutrition. A U.N.-assisted tribunal is currently trying two of the group's surviving former leaders on charges of genocide and other crimes. Hun Sen has sought to block the tribunal from holding trials of any more suspects.
The bill approved Friday must go through several more pro forma stages before becoming law. It would punish anyone denying that crimes were committed by the Khmer Rouge with imprisonment of six months to two years.
"Not recognizing the crimes constitutes an insult to the souls of those who died during the (Khmer Rouge) regime and brings suffering to the surviving family members of the victims," government lawmaker Cheam Yeap told the National Assembly, saying the law would help people recall their bitter history, bring justice for the victims and help prevent a repetition of the events.
Youk Chhang, director of Documentation Center, an independent office that documents Khmer Rouge atrocities, said the law "poses the risk of politicizing the incredibly difficult process of reconciliation that Cambodia has been struggling with for the past 30 years."
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said his group believes it is not necessary to have a law that prohibits denials that serious crimes were committed under the Khmer Rouge.
"Restricting debate, discussion and education about the Khmer Rouge period through such a law would be to the detriment of survivors, rather than for their benefit," he said in a statement. "The law is therefore a blatant politicization of our country's history in order to score points before the national elections."
Brad Adams, Asia director for the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, called Hun Sen's advocacy of the law "entirely election-related."
"It's a tool to try to intimidate the opposition but also to galvanize his side, to demonize the opposition as unfit to govern, and to show that he's in charge, to show the country that he can completely dominate the opposition. And make them squirm," Adams said.
Even before proposing the law, Hun Sen's government sought political gain from the issue by having pro-government media publicize the remarks by Kem Sokha, deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, that some exhibits at Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng genocide museum — once a Khmer Rouge torture camp — were faked by the Vietnamese, even though the camp's commander confessed to atrocities there and was found guilty by a the U.N.-assisted genocide tribunal.
Kem Sokha's party said his words had been distorted and taken out of context.