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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Judicial reform 2007: an Iron Fist gone limp

Judicial reform 2007: an Iron Fist gone limp

Almost two years since Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to reform Cambodia's notoriously

corrupt judiciary with his "iron fist," there has been a shameful lack

of judicial progress, lawmakers and human rights' groups have told the Post.

In fact, some say the atmosphere of fear that stemmed from the edict may have actually

weakened the impartiality and competence of the court system.

"The purpose of [Hun Sen's] 'iron fist' was not to improve the court system,

it was to control the court - this was the problem," SRP lawmaker Son Chhay

told the Post on January 25. "The Prime Minister interfered with the independence

of the court. It has worked for Hun Sen - now he fully controls the court. I believe

this is an abuse of power by the Prime Minister."

Chhay said one of Heng Pov's former complaints was that the police were arresting

real criminals, whom the court then released.

"The purpose was not to strengthen the institutions - as a consequence a number

of people were thrown into prison without trial," Chhay said.

"He [Hun Sen] has succeeded for the courts [in making] a biased tool without

creating a more reliable and independent court," he said.

Recently there have been a number of arrests of and serious charges laid against

Funcinpec and SRP members, seemingly designed to target CPP opposition. At the same

time CPP members often seem to have got off lightly over relatively serious crimes.

Normal citizens, apparently with no money to pay the courts off, continue to serve

severe sentences for minor crimes.

Three Armed Forces generals known to be members of SRP and Funcinpec were arrested

on January 16 by military police in Phnom Penh on charges of robbery and illegal

gathering of armed forces.

After the investigating judge in Battambang wished to throw the case out due to lack

of evidence, Battambang Provincial Prosecutor Sar Yosthavarak laid further charges

of murder on the three. Major General Uth Sakhan, Funcinpec deputy commander of Brigade

70; Brigadier General Khieng Savorn, SRP member; and Brigadier General Men Saran,

deputy commander of RCAF Military Region Two and a former Funcinpec member, remain

in Battambang provincial prison with no announced bail release date.

In January two military police officers paid $750 in compensation to the family of

a 30-year-old man they tortured and killed while in police custody in Kampong Thom

province. After the payment the family withdrew its complaint, and the police officers

were released.

In December, Kandal provincial court sentenced recycler Chan Pov, 32, to four years

in prison for stealing 16 coconuts at Takmau market, Kandal province.

On March 3, 2005, Hun Sen made the following indictment of Cambodia's courts to the

annual National Health Congress:

"There are three legs on which the cooking pot rests, the legislative, the executive

and the judicial. One of these legs is broken. We will have to hang the pot up and

we will use the iron fist, Hun Sen's iron fist, to do it."

At the time Chiv Keng, chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court (PPMC) from October

2005, was publicly charged with revamping the capital's inefficient court system.

Many observers consider Keng Hun Sen's point man in his "iron fist" crackdown

on Cambodia's corrupt courts.

"In the past people have considered the PPMC like a market for doing business,"

Keng told the Post in March 2006. "They considered the cases like goods that

they can buy." In the same interview, Keng said that since Hun Sen's speech

and Keng's appointment, the courts had improved considerably.

"The government, the Ministry of Justice, the Council for Juridical Reform,

the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Supreme Court are satisfied with our reform,"

Keng said at the time.

However, Human Rights Watch annual report on Cambodia slammed the courts as being

widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent.

"The courts... continue to be used to advance political agendas, silence critics,

and strip people of their land. The Ministry of Justice continues to have oversight

over the Supreme Council of the Magistracy's secretariat, a disciplinary body for

the judiciary that is meant to be independent," the report said.

"You'll find lawyers saying it ["iron fist"] had the opposite effect

[of improving the courts]," said Jeffrey Kahan, technical adviser of the Cambodian

Defenders Project.

"It's Samdech Hun Sen's way: although it gets everyone's attention, it's not

a lasting effect. It scared the hell out of the court officials, [so they] weren't

independent. People who shouldn't have been let out were being let out - people were

getting sentenced who shouldn't have been. The proper decisions weren't being made,"

Kahan said.

"Judicial reform in Cambodia has not had any effect at all," said Chea

Mony, president of the Free Trade Union.

"The court is under the power of a few generals. When a judge investigates properly,

they are removed. Investigating judge Hing Thirith found that Bon Samnang and Sok

Sam Oeurn were not involved in killing my brother Chea Vichea, so he was removed.

When Hun Sen began using the 'iron fist' over the courts it meant the courts were

not independent," Mony said.

And what does Hun Sen's courts hatchet man Chiv Keng think about all this criticism

of the courts today?

"They may as well be saying all that, as it's advantageous to their party or

group," Keng told the Post.

"They don't know if what they say is the truth or not. In fact, Hing Thirith

was punished... because he committed a lot of other wrongdoings not related to Bon

Sam Nang and Sok Sam Oeurn. He was removed because of his connection to the release

of a group of robbers, the arresting and detention of innocent people, and other

[matters]." Keng said everyone agrees the courts have become much more transparent

and independent over the last year, and that "Hun Sen's three legs" have

remained independent of each other.

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