A review of court proceedings in Phnom Penh, one that could ultimately cost the capital’s judicial chief his job, has been ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen following the municipal court’s decision to release the parents of a fugitive tycoon on bail.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony yesterday, Hun Sen told Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to investigate and take action against municipal court judge Ly Sokleng, who released the parents of wanted murder suspect Thong Sarath on bail on February 7 after they complained of ill health.
Thong Chamroeun, Sarath’s father, and Keo Sary, his mother, were detained Sunday night during an apparent attempt to flee to Vietnam.
They were arrested in early December during a manhunt for their son, owner of the Borey 999 development project, who has since been charged with coordinating the murder of Shimmex Group owner Ung Meng Cheu on November 22.
Hun Sen said it was lucky the authorities had detained Sarath’s parents before they managed to leave the country.
“It’s lucky that they were caught. If they were not, it would be a big matter,” he said.
He also suggested that the judiciary may have been acting in cahoots with “thieves” in making the decision to release Chamroeun and Sary.
“The explanation that they were ill is unacceptable. If true, why not bring a doctor to treat them? [The judge] said the crime was only a misdemeanor, but they had eight guns, that’s why I am shouting about it! Some only carry sticks and stay in prison, but they had eight guns and got bail,” he said.
“Some judges conspire with thieves … the person who signed the [bail] document conspired with the thieves, so I would have him arrested. A judge, I cannot arrest, but I can catch someone who conspires with the thieves to release them,” he added.
Sokleng, the judge in charge of Sarath’s case, could not be reached for comment, and Ang Maltey, president of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, declined to answer questions.
Hun Sen’s tirade comes less than a week after Interior Minister Sar Kheng heaped criticism on the judiciary, saying that the courts often release offenders despite police finding sufficient evidence to convict them.
A senior official at the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the body intended to guarantee the independence of the judiciary, who asked not to be named, said that the council had convened an emergency meeting yesterday.
At the meeting, officials decided to suspend Municipal Court president Maltey pending a disciplinary review; appoint Taing Sunlay, deputy president of the court, to serve in Maltey’s absence; and commission an inquiry into judge Sokleng.
Ith Rady, an undersecretary of state at the Justice Ministry, confirmed that an audit of Sokleng’s work had begun. “The inspection team will soon finish this work, since it is urgent. We have to look at whether this was the judge’s fault and how much responsibility [he bears].”
Rady said that he had already seen royal decrees confirming Sokleng’s suspension and the appointment of Sunlay in his stead, although an official letter regarding the inquiry’s findings would probably be released today.
Sunlay could not be reached for comment.
Ny Chakrya, chief investigator for rights group Adhoc, said Hun Sen’s speech was an assault on the independence of the courts.
“The prime minister wants to show that he is serious about reforming the judicial system, but [reform] can’t be achieved by shouting like this,” he said.
“At the moment, we see that most of the judges are under the [ruling Cambodian People’s Party], so there is no guarantee of its independence.”
But Chin Malin, a spokesman with the Ministry of Justice, said that the Supreme Council of Magistracy wouldn’t be swayed.
“When [Hun Sen] is unsatisfied with the decisions of the courts, he can make a request, but the decision is that of the Supreme Council of Magistracy only.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA