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Feb 20, 7:10 AM EST

Cambodia lawmakers approve law threatening opposition party



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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- Cambodia's legislature amended a law governing political parties on Monday to allow the government to apply to the courts to have a party dissolved, an act aimed at the sole opposition group in parliament.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party boycotted Monday's 90-minute debate on the legislation and subsequent vote, in which all 66 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People's Party who were present voted in favor. The amendments now need approval from the ruling party-controlled Senate, a simple formality.

Long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested the amendments earlier this month, in what is seen as an attempt to shore up his party's strength ahead of local elections this year and a general election in 2018. The opposition staged an unexpectedly strong challenge in 2013's general election.

The new provisions allow the Supreme Court to dissolve parties whose leaders have criminal convictions, and bar the leaders from political activities for five years. Critics charge that Cambodia's courts are under the political influence of the ruling party.

In addition, the Interior Ministry will be allowed to suspend parties whose activities incite national disintegration, a catch-all clause similar to those in other laws that are used against the government's critics.

"The passage of these amendments marks the final consolidation of absolute power in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People's Party," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Hun Sen's election strategy is clear: bulldoze what's left of Cambodia's democratic institutions by using laws like this one, while simultaneously intimidating civil society into silence with arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and threats to de-register troublesome NGOs," Robertson said.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party, in a statement issued before the debate, said the changes violate the principles of liberal and multiparty democracy.

"The proposal of the amendments was done too quickly and with the aim of intimidating and destroying the rival party," it said.

There were political consequences even before the amendment was passed, with longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015, resigning from the Cambodia National Rescue Party because he was convicted in a defamation case and has several other cases pending.

Hun Sen's government in the past year has put increasing legal pressure on its critics and political opponents, keeping them tied up in court, sending them fleeing into exile, or sometimes jailing them.

National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long said the purpose of the amendment was to ensure fairness for all parties.

The U.S. Embassy said it was "deeply concerned" that the amendments passed with little consultation or public debate.

"Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia's political development and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections," it said.

It called on the government to ensure that the polls this year and next "are free, open, and transparent, that all political parties have the opportunity to compete on an equal basis."

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