Cambodian lawmakers approve lese majeste law

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodian lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved changes to the criminal code and the constitution that can further limit free speech and political activities, already under stress from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

All 123 members of the National Assembly approved the changes to the criminal code making lese majeste — insulting the monarchy — a criminal offense punishable by a fine and up to five years in prison. A court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party last year at the government's behest, and its lawmakers have been replaced in the assembly by ones who support the government.

The broadly worded constitutional amendments ban foreign interference in Cambodian affairs and political activity that could be harmful to the national interest.

Hun Sen has been in power for three decades, and while maintaining a framework of democracy, tolerates little opposition. In the past year, the government cracked down severely on its opponents and critics, relying on the courts — widely considered to be under the influence of the ruling Cambodian People's Party — to uphold criminal complaints it has lodged. In addition to dissolving the main opposition party, almost all critical media outlets have been shut down.

The government has said the lese majeste law is needed to protect the honor and reputation of the king.

King Norodom Sihamoni, 64, is a constitutional monarch who maintains a low profile and plays a minimal role in public affairs, while Prime Minister Hun Sen exercises almost absolute control over politics.

Earlier this month, the human rights group International Commission of Jurists condemned the Cabinet's approval of the lese majeste legislation, saying it "appears to be a further attempt by the government to weaponize the country's legislation against its perceived opponents."

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