[JURIST] Cambodia’s Parliament [official website] on Thursday passed two controversial new election laws that rights groups are criticizing as ill-conceived and potentially damaging to free speech. The laws represent a compromise between the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) [party websites, in Khmer] in an effort to avoid the kind of political gridlock that resulted from the July 2013 reelection of Prime Minister Hun Sen [BBC reports], in which the CNRP refused to sit in parliament for a year. The laws are being criticized for instituting heavy fines and bans against NGOs who are critical of political parties during the 21-day campaign period, for preventing opposition parties from boycotting parliament by taking away their seats and for allowing security forces to join campaigns. Advocacy groups, such as Human Rights Watch [advocacy website], argue [press release] that “[l]aws like these [limit] freedom of expression, association and assembly” and “make it likely that any future Cambodian election is undemocratic.” Despite these critiques, the bill was unanimously approved in the legislature without debate.
Cambodia has had a history of human rights abuses which have continued to alarm rights organizations around the world. In January Cambodian General Sao Sohka admitted to using force [JURIST report] against political opponents of the CPP. Earlier in January the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) restarted genocide hearings [JURIST report] against the former Khmer Rouge regime’s surviving leaders. Proceedings had been postponed since November, when defense lawyers refused to participate [JURIST report] because they were still working to appeal an earlier verdict. In October the Cambodian government released the findings of a survey [JURIST report] showing the magnitude of violence against children throughout the country. In September UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi commented [JURIST report] on Cambodia’s recent efforts in human rights protection, noting that while there have been improvements, there are still substantial problems in the judicial system.