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Cambodia approves legislation making genocide denial a crime

Critics say it will be used against the opposition

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The 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.

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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.

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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.