PHNOM PENH • Cambodia's government yesterday approved the country's first lese majeste law handing a jail sentence and fine to anyone found guilty of insulting the king, a move that rights groups fear will be used to target dissent.
Unlike neighbouring Thailand where royal defamation often results in decades in jail, Cambodia's largely symbolic monarchy was not until now shielded from criticism.
The law was adopted during a Cabinet meeting chaired by premier Hun Sen, who is poised to extend his tenure at elections in July after dissolving the opposition and driving many of his critics into self-exile.
The new law, which bans insulting Cambodia's constitutional monarch, King Norodom Sihamoni, was added to the criminal code to "uphold and to protect the reputation and royal name," government spokesman Phay Siphan wrote in a Facebook post. "Insults to the King shall be punished between one to five years in prison" plus a US$2,500 (S$3,285) fine, the post said.
The power of the Cambodian monarchy has waned significantly in recent decades.
King Sihamoni, who took the throne in 2004, is well-respected among Cambodians and largely seen as above the political fray.
But rights campaigners warned that the lese majeste law is likely to be wielded as a political weapon in a country where the courts are routinely accused of doing Mr Hun Sen's bidding.
There is a "real risk that lese majeste would be added to the arsenal of laws currently being misused by the Cambodian government to silence dissent", said Mr Kingsley Abbott from the International Commission of Jurists.