02/03/2018, 09.10
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Law on lese majesty approved. Activists: 'It targets dissent'

The law provides for a sentence of one to five years in prison, plus a fine of 2 thousand euros. Ascended the throne in 2004, the current monarch king Norodom Sihamoni plays the ceremonial role of head of state. Critics of the sovereign for the authoritarian drift of the country, dominated for over 30 years by Premier Hun Sen.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - In a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Council of Ministers yesterday approved a provision to introduce the first lest-majesty law into the penal code of the country and to make derogatory comments on the monarchy illegal.

Human rights groups fear that the new law, passed along with other amendments on freedom of expression, will be used to target dissent against the premier's government, which has been in power for over 30 years.

The Council has also ordered changes to the constitution, including the addition of an article that will impose on all political parties to "put the interests of the nation first" and another that cites "the obligation to ... defend the motherland ". The law will now pass to the National Assembly, which will ratify it next week. "An insult to King Norodom Sihamoni will be punished with a sentence between one and five years in prison", plus a fine of 2 thousand euros, declares the government spokesman Phay Siphan in a post on Facebook.

Ascended the throne in 2004, the current monarch king Norodom Sihamoni (photo) carries out a ceremonial role as head of state and is almost entirely absent from everyday politics, unlike his father Norodom Sihanouk, who was an active political figure throughout his life.

Critics of the government believe that the new law represents an ironic turning point. In 2005, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the monarchy if King Sihamoni refused to sign a controversial treaty on borders with Vietnam. In the last 33 years, marked by the uninterrupted government of Hun Sen, the power of the Cambodian monarchy has declined significantly. "I think we can use the expression 'king puppet'. His power has been reduced to nothing ", said the politician Son Chhay in 2011.

King Sihamoni is required to sign laws, which in recent times have been harshly criticized by those who believe he should have done more to prevent the dismantling of democracy. In October 2017, the sovereign approved some controversial amendments to the electoral laws of Cambodia, approving the provisions that allowed the redistribution of seats belonging to the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), now dissolved at the behest of the Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Later, former deputy prime minister Ly Lay Sreng criticized King Sihamoni in a private conversation, then made public without his consent. This led to a defamation lawsuit brought by the lawyers of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the former party of Lay Sreng, the Funcinpec, and the conception of the new law.

The Cambodian Penal Code already contains draconian rules on the defamation of public figures and government officials. However, many analysts believe that the latest government amendments are additional means of encouraging repression of dissent and freedom of speech, and not necessarily to protect the monarchy.

Fears are on the rise in the country that the executive can exercise the rule as a tool to censor those who criticize it, claiming that insulting the state is tantamount to insulting the king. Kingsley Abbott of the International Commission of Jurists states: "There is a real risk that this provision will be added to the arsenal of laws currently abused by the government, in a country where the lack of independent and impartial judges who control and balance their power is worrying".

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