Gov’t to claim extensive new powers under emergency laws4 min read

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Two police officers stand guard in Phnom Penh on January 15, 2020. Panha Chhorpoan
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People who violate Cambodia’s extensive new state of emergency powers set to fast-tracked into law from Friday face up to 10 years in prison, according to a leaked draft of the pending legislation championed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The law includes 11 articles divided into five chapters and gives the government near limitless powers to repress public gatherings and free speech during times of threats to national security and public order — or in times of health crises — and gives authorities wide powers to arrest people as they deem necessary.

The law says that during times of grave danger, the king can place the country in a state of emergency as long as there is agreement from the prime minister and the presidents of the National Assembly and Senate. It says such scenarios may include dangers such as threats of war or invasion, public health emergencies including the rapid spread of infectious diseases, impending chaos that threatens public order, or any other serious disaster that threatens to cause danger.

In such scenarios, the law says, the Cambodian government will have the power to prohibit public gatherings, limit the freedom to travel, close business activities, force people to remain in their homes — or, in case of any health emergencies, into quarantine for a period necessary to stem infectious disease outbreaks.

It also provides powers to suppress the spread of information during such crises and allows for use of Cambodia’s military to enforce the government’s orders.

“If necessary, the government can create a mechanism, or provide power to any authorities, or use the armed forces, to guarantee implementation,” it says.

The government will have to report regularly to the National Assembly and Senate about its use of the emergency powers, and both bodies will also be able to formally request specific information from the government for monitoring. Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controls both chambers, having claimed 125 out of the 125 seats in the July 2018 national election.

The draft law also states that any intentional obstruction of the government’s state of emergency powers — or any efforts to hinder their implementation in general — will lead to the imposition of prison terms from one to five years, alongside fines of one to five million riel (about $250 to $1,250). Deliberately disregarding orders given under the law attracts a prison sentence of one month to one year and a fine of 100,000 to one million riel (about $25 to $250).

“Acts of interruption in event of a state of emergency are punishable by five to 10 years prison, if they result in a public nuisance or damage national security,” it adds.

Ny Sokha, head of monitoring at local rights group Adhoc, said he supported the creation of the new emergency powers to stem the growing threat of coronavirus spreading but that he was worried the law could be misused in future.

“We request that the government should use this law only against the spreading of this disease,” Sokha said, explaining that the extensive powers could be called upon for repression long after the coronavirus threat subsides. “Please do not use this law to impact the processes of democracy in Cambodia in the future.”

“Law enforcement should be based on justice and neutrality — please do not use this law to serve the interests of any one group or to hurt another group,” he said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that, in principle, the government created the law only for the benefit of the people and in times of true emergency.

“We create this law for the general benefit of the nation and for the people.

It is not to pressure any people, or any group of the people,” Malin said, calling for rights workers not be concerned. “We use this law only for the country and in terms of emergency; if it is not necessary, we will not be using it.”

National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long said the law was simply filling in the details of powers already afforded to the government under the Constitution.

“We created this law because Cambodia does not have this law yet — but the Constitution states about the state of emergency,” Peng Long said.

The law is set to pass the Council of Ministers on Friday. It then must pass the National Assembly and Senate and be approved by the Constitutional Council and the king. Hun Sen has promised that this process will be fast-tracked.

Separately, King Norodom Sihamoni has left Cambodia for “medical treatment” — leaving the final approval on the law to Senate President Say Chhum, a vice president of the CPP, who acts as head of state when the king is unable.

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