Hundreds of cases of beer kept spirits high at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last night following a ceremony to appoint a new court president after the removal of former president Ang Maltey amid allegations of widespread graft.
More than 200 officials from the judicial, military and political circles gathered to celebrate the ousting of Maltey and the appointment of his replacement, former court deputy president Taing Sunlay.
About 200 cases of beer donated to the party by a former municipal court president helped lubricate officials, who exchanged tales of Maltey’s alleged corrupt practices.
Several officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the former president had attended a dinner with the parents of fugitive tycoon Thong Sarath shortly after the pair were unexpectedly released on bail on February 7.
“We’re very happy he’s gone,” one partygoer said.
Thong Chamroeun, Sarath’s father, and Keo Sary, his mother, were detained on Sunday night during an alleged 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 November 22 murder of Shimmex Group owner Ung Meng Cheu.
Prime Minister Hun Sen in a speech on Tuesday suggested that the release of Sarath’s parents pointed to corruption within the court.
“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,” Hun Sen said.
“It’s lucky that [Sarath’s parents] were caught. If they were not, it would be a big matter,” he added.
Following his speech, officials at the Supreme Council of Magistracy said they had initiated an inquiry into Maltey’s tenure.
Both Maltey and Sunlay declined to comment yesterday.
Kim Santepheap, spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, claimed that the decision to initiate an investigation into Maltey had nothing to do with Hun Sen’s public reaction to the judge’s behaviour only hours before.
“I cannot say what he [Maltey] did wrong, because he is under investigation by the ministry’s inspectors. When we get the results of the investigation, we can say what he did wrong. The dismissal is not because of the prime minister,” he said. “He just made a request, so this transfer is a measure taken by the Supreme Council of Magistracy.”
Analysts widely disagreed with Santepheap’s argument that the judiciary had acted independently in commissioning an inquiry into Maltey.
“Hun Sen is always taking actions in order to warn others,” said Kem Ley, a longtime analyst who recently moved to enter the political arena. “'If you do something without consulting me, you will fall into the same situation.' This is the message.”
“All the judges of the courts will now do their role, and they must consult with Hun Sen,” he added.
Ou Virak, an independent analyst and former president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the move against Maltey had been prompted by the public perception of the Thong Sarath case.
“We don’t know if the case involves corruption, but I suspect it does,” he said. “And I suspect he [Maltey] had no permission to release [Chamroeun and Sary] on bail.”
“In the past, when there’s a really strong reaction [to a case], Hun Sen tries to push the blame down the line. It’s a public relations issue. I think they were very concerned by the public’s reaction [to Chamroeun and Sary’s attempt to flee the country].”
While acknowledging that the bail decision and public outcry played its part, Ley said there are wider forces at play.
“The whole judicial system is controlled by the Ministry of Justice, under the control of Hun Sen,” he said. “The King has no real power, so the [judiciary] can do anything.”
Chea Vannath, an independent analyst, said that Hun Sen had made a subtle distinction in his speech, backing up Ley’s opinion; one that was “not in the spirit of democracy”.
“He said [the judiciary] is not a separate entity, it’s a ‘relative entity’ … He means they are interrelated and are both separate but, at the same time, family,” she said.
Attempts to reach a government spokesman for comment were unsuccessful.