March 19, 2015 / 11:29 AM / 3 years ago

Cambodia passes strict poll laws criticized by U.S., rights groups

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia’s parliament passed two controversial new election laws on Thursday that have drawn criticism from rights groups and the United States for limiting oversight and stifling freedom of speech during campaign periods.

The laws are part of a political deal struck last year between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to end a tense standoff over a disputed 2013 poll.

The laws sailed through the legislature without debate.

But rights groups fear the laws could be abused to disqualify candidates on insufficient grounds. They say a clause allowing security forces to join campaigns could lead to intimidation of voters.

The laws curb campaign periods and marches, and outlaw parliamentary boycotts. Any candidate refusing to take a seat would lose it.

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin told parliament the laws would help to ensure elections were conducted “with efficiency and transparency”.

Dozens of civil society groups boycotted a seminar on the election bills last week and said parties had not only excluded them from proper consultations but were seeking to muzzle them during campaigns by criminalizing undefined “insults”.

Naly Pilorge, director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, said the laws “contradict verbal promises made by both parties and the Cambodian Constitution”.

U.S. Ambassador William Todd expressed doubt the legislation represented progress.

“I am also concerned and do not understand how these limitations are improvements,” he said on his blog.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the laws would undermine election monitors, make polls undemocratic and favor the CPP, which has long been accused of preserving its rule by crushing detractors and influencing independent institutions.

“It’s hardly surprising that the CPP proposed these provisions, but the CNRP shares the blame for agreeing to criminalize and censor speech,” its Asia Director, Brad Adams, said in a statement.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy said the laws were not perfect because his party had no choice but to make concessions.

“There can’t be a 100 percent satisfaction,” Sam Rainsy told reporters. “We’ll wait for an opportunity in the future where we will be able to make more changes.”

Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez

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