PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – Cambodia's National Assembly passed a bill on Monday barring political parties from having links with convicted criminals, a move aimed at keeping the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party from capitalizing on its association with its popular former leader, Sam Rainsy.
Sam Rainsy has been convicted of criminal defamation and similar offenses by courts generally seen as politically biased. He already resigned his party leadership and membership in February after the Law on Political Parties was amended to make parties liable to be dissolved if their leaders had criminal convictions. He has been in self-imposed exile for more than 1 1/2 years to avoid prison on the defamation charge, for which he was convicted but had believed was covered by a pardon.
The February changes also allowed the Interior Ministry to suspend parties whose activities incite national disintegration, a catchall clause similar to those in other laws that are used against the government's critics.
Monday's amendments of the political parties law were boycotted by the opposition, but passed unanimously after an hour of debate by all 66 lawmakers present from the ruling Cambodian People's Party. The amendments need approval from the ruling party-controlled Senate, a simple formality.
The new amendments bar political parties from cooperating with people convicted of felonies or misdemeanors, and from using images, audio recordings or writings of those lawbreakers to benefit their cause. Any parties that violate the newly adopted provisions could be suspended for up to five years or dissolved entirely by court rulings.
Long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested further amendments to the political parties law late last month, in what is seen as an attempt to shore up his party's strength ahead of next year general election.
In nationwide local elections earlier in June, the Cambodian People's Party won most constituencies but received a weak majority of the popular vote, where the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party made gains.
The opposition had already staged an unexpectedly strong challenge in 2013's general election.
Without specifically naming Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen in public remarks last month accused a former opposition leader of meddling in political and national affairs and provoking civil disorder. Sam Rainsy has been continuing his criticism of Hun Sen and his government, largely on Facebook, where the attacks also have included cartoons making fun of the prime minister's bulging waistline.
"It's really silly on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen to order his yes-men at the rubber-stamp National Assembly to produce a 'law' that just targets one single person," Sam Rainsy's said in a prepared statement. "It's now clear for the public that Hun Sen is afraid of me — his best enemy — to the extent that only my name or my photo or my voice or my shadow or any representation of me causes him insomnia."
"However, I am concerned that my like-minded CNRP former colleagues, all government critics and all Cambodian democrats, will be held hostages by the authoritarian CPP-led government so as to silence me, but I will resist blackmail and, at the same time, do my best to ensure that I will be the only person they will blame and want to punish," he added.
A prominent ruling party lawmaker, Chheang Vun, said during Monday's parliamentary session that the aim of the amendments was not to put pressure to the opposition party but to make sure that all political parties respect the law.
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.