efe-epaBangkok Desk

The Cambodian parliament on Wednesday approved a penal reform banning offenses and insults to the country's monarchy, despite criticism from rights groups who fear that the government may use it to crack down on dissidents.

The proposal was unanimously approved in the lower house, where the ruling Cambodia People's Party enjoys an absolute majority, particularly since the main opposition party was expelled from the National Assembly after it was declared illegal in November last year.

Wednesday's amendments have criminalized disrespecting the crown, making it punishable with between one and five years in prison and fines of between $500 and $2,500, according to the Phnom Penh Post.

The amendment will now go through the formality of being passed by the Senate and be signed by King Sihamoni before coming into effect.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country since 1985, said the amendments were necessary to protect Cambodia from external influences.

King Sihamoni is immensely popular in the country, where he plays a largely symbolic and ceremonial role with little political power.

The change in the penal code follows a judicial campaign against the opposition and critics of the government.

The campaign came after the ruling party fared poorly in the municipal elections last June, which came one year before the general elections in which Hun Sen will seek to renew his mandate in the country.

With the help of the United Nations, Cambodia organized the first democratic elections in 1993, after more than two decades of civil war, including the Khmer Rouge regime, during which 1.7 million people died.