Reshuffling of Judges Doing Little to Fix Pliable Courts

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A hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court (UNOHCHR)
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A policy to rotate judges and other court officials between provinces every four years has done little to tackle the roots of judicial corruption and court pliability in the face of government pressure, according to critics and legal experts.

The latest transfers were proposed by the Justice Ministry and Supreme Council of Magistracy and signed by the king in a document dated June 12. Its goal was to prevent corruption in the courts, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said.

However, commentators said even as the policy effectively moved around court officials and ensured they did not become entwined with local interests, there were bigger issues facing Cambodia’s courts that were not being dealt with.

Prominent attorney Sok Sam Soeun said the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which oversees the courts, including the appointment and disciplining of all judges, needed to be made independent of the government as a priority.

“In order to make judicial system independent, first we have to look into the Supreme Council of Magistracy,” Sam Soeun said, explaining there should be a clear separation of executive and judiciary to ensure the courts’ independence.

“The important thing is that they are independent.”

Am Sam Ath, a monitoring manager at rights group Licadho, added that government lawmakers had made a habit of writing laws targeted at punishing only specific groups they see as threats, such as the opposition party.

They also had too much power to influence judges’ decisions, he said, and those who did the government’s bidding were given priority in cases of promotion.

“Sometimes, there is a kind of encouragement given to some prosecutors and judges who have done good work for the government, who have previously protected the government,” Sam Ath said.

In 2017, the National Assembly passed a series of amendments to the Political Parties Law that was used within months to dissolve the ruling party’s chief rival, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Mu Sochua, a vice president head of the dissolved CNRP, criticized the fact that many of the country’s top justices were also ruling party members.

“Like His Excellency Dith Munty, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who also has a high position in the Cambodian People’s Party,” Sochua said.

Munty, a CPP standing committee member, presided over the November 2017 decision to dissolve the CNRP and ban top leaders from politics for five years.

Court officials were rewarded within the party for their work in the judiciary to protect its interests, Sochua said, causing a clear conflict of interest.

“Some judges who have been involved in the trials of political cases were promoted, and this cannot be called reform,” she said.

However, Malin, the Justice Ministry spokesman, denied that trials were being compromised by having ruling party members adjudicate them.

“The party’s mechanism does not have much influence because some countries also allow judges to be political party members because this is a fundamental right of the people,” Malin said. “It should not mean that by fulfilling a public service, they lose their political rights.”

Meanwhile, Um Sophy, a representative of Kompong Chhnang province residents involved in a land dispute with a government minister’s wife, said that she was concerned by the policy of rotating judges. While the policy may prevent judges becoming entwined in local politics, it also had its downsides, she noted.

She feared the residents of Kompong Tralach district’s Ta Ches commune would now need to relitigate their case against KDC from scratch with a new judge. KDC, a developer, is owned by Energy Minister Suy Sem’s wife Chea Kheng.

The land dispute, involving 49 families and 118 hectares, had dragged on for 13 years already, Sophy said.

In February, the World Justice Project ranked Cambodia 125th out of 126 countries — above only Venezuela — for its rule of law, based on corruption, transparency, fundamental freedoms and law enforcement.

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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