Cambodia approves controversial new election laws

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian MPs approved two controversial election laws Thursday which were condemned by rights groups as undemocratic for including restrictive provisions such as banning NGOs from criticising parties during election campaigns.

The laws, which were unanimously approved, received backing from both the ruling party of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen and his opposition.

They have been presented as an attempt to avoid the kind of post-election political deadlock that has dogged Cambodia in recent years.

But civil society and rights groups have criticised the laws as ill-conceived and rushed, with serious implications for free speech.

Among the criticised provisions are heavy fines and bans for NGOs that "insult" parties and candidates during the campaign period, which has been reduced from 30 to 21 days.

Political parties that choose to boycott parliament could also see their seats taken away from them under the new law.

"The process by which these laws were passed raises serious questions about the intent behind them," Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told AFP.

"These laws undermine fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution," she said, adding that the legislation received little public debate before it was passed and was "likely to restrict public engagement in the political process".

Human Rights Watch's Asia director Brad Adam added: "Laws like these limiting freedom of expression, association, and assembly will make it likely that any future Cambodian election is undemocratic." Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), promised to address concerns by activists.

"We will try to resolve what civil society is not satisfied with," he told reporters.

The CNRP boycotted parliament for nearly a year, accusing the country's election commission of political bias and allowing Hun Sen to steal victory during July 2013 polls.

The CNRP only took up its seats in the National Assembly in July last year in return for a promise of electoral reforms.

Since then the Cambodian parliament has voted to guarantee the independence of the election commission.

On Wednesday Hun Sen said the new election body would be formed next month and have nine members - four each from the ruling and opposition parties and an independent figure agreed on by both sides.

Cambodia's premier marked three decades in power in January and is regularly criticised by campaigners for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.