To some, he's the biggest apologist for a justice system marred by corruption
and manipulated by the government; to others, he's a competent technocrat trying
to forge a rule of law. Minister of Justice Chem Snguon spoke Oct 20 to Eric Pape
about the judiciary, Srun Vong Vannak's controversial trial, and political killings.
Chem Snguon began his government career as a diplomat loyal to then-Prince
Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1975, after Pol Pot's Democratic
Kampuchea regime took power, Snguon returned to Cambodia from abroad at the invitation
of Foreign Minister Ieng Sary. Snguon was imprisoned at Boeng Trabek detention camp
until the Vietnamese invasion overthrew Pol Pot. He rallied to the subsequent People's
Republic of Kampuchea regime, and later served as Vice-Minister of Justice from 1983
to 1993. Appointed as Minister after the 1993 elections, he is also an MP for Svay
Rieng. A long-time CPP member, Snguon was this year appointed to the party's central
committee. Aged 71, he is known to be in poor health.
Phnom Penh Post: Will the poor be able to count on free legal protection after
the end of the year when the mandate of legal defenders groups runs out, particularly
if the Kingdom of Cambodia's Bar Association does not have the funds to take over
the job you are giving to them?
Chem Snugon: The Cambodia Defenders Project [and Legal Aid of Cambodia]
are not important for training lawyers, they must pay lawyers for people who don't
have the means [to afford a lawyer]. Our idea... is to create a fund for the Bar
Association to defend the poor...
Lawyers can't work for a non-governmental organization like that. They must work
for the bar... Aid organizations must respect the law on the bar and the aid must
be poured into the bar fund.
Look, the Minister of Justice is considered by some organizations as being a difficult
minister. In fact, we want to spend aid money with a great deal of attention, no
waste and a good result, so that at the end of the day it amounts to something...
How do we proceed? We know all the courts, the work, the competency of most judges...we
want aid to be targeted well. If you use the money for general training, it isn't
Presently the weakest point of justice lies in the collaboration between the judicial
police and the court. This collaboration is not sufficient, or until now, effective.
It is because the police listen more to their bosses than the courts. They don't
understand their responsibilities. They understand their bosses' orders and not the
court's. Firstly, training must make it understood that the judicial police are under
the orders of the prosecutors. They must respect the prosecutor at all times. Secondly,
both police and judges must be taught investigative procedures. You have heard in
the Cambodian press, have you not, of the discontent with the police. The police
say they arrest bad people and send them to court, who then release them. But the
police don't arrest big fish, only small gang members and [sometimes] they do it
when there is not enough proof. They are not precise enough with the facts. When
their report arrives at the court without enough evidence, [suspects] must by set
The police and the court must be on the same path.
How do you respond to allegations that you preside over a corrupt legal system?
There is corruption. We have found it in Pursat and Takeo. When we checked all
the prisoners, we found out that some are missing. In Takeo, 10 prisoners are missing,
for example. The cases are being sent to the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
With many judges receiving monthly salaries of $20 or $25 per month, isn't there
a great temptation to accept bribes?
What you say is true. When the salary is too low, when the salary only provides
four or five days of food for a family, there is a great temptation. Cambodia is
turning in a vicious cycle, why can't it get out of it? We want to reach a state
of law, but to reach that we want justice to be independent and effective. A sufficient
salary is necessary for judges, and clerks too, but we don't have the means to augment
their salaries. We are often criticized about the state of law, but we are not helped
with other problems. Happily, there are honest judges. Corruption is not so great.
There is some, but not in great proportions.
[Most of] the people who live in Cambodia have survived the Khmer Rouge era from
1975 to 1979. Life for them at that time was so hard that they can now deal with
these difficulties of judges who take some cigarettes or money for their families.
[But] go to the court in Svay Rieng. Two judges there asked for 15 days off so they
can harvest rice for their families. These judges, in spite of great difficulties,
are looking for all honest means by which they can get by.
What are the effects of the millions of dollars in USAID cuts on the creation
of a state of law in Cambodia?
America is the first country to push all countries to observe democracy and a
state of law. The Court Training Program [was] a valuable program to help the country
toward a state of law. If you cut [such programs], you are not helping the country.
Some critics of the judiciary say the courts are under the thumb of the government,
others say they are merely afraid to make decisions that might upset the Second Prime
Minister. How do you respond?
The Minister of Justice, the government and the legislative power have no right
to be involved in the decisions of the court.
Justice is organized on three levels [and] is independent....If a convict is not
in agreement with the court decision, they can ask the Court of Appeals to look at
that decision. If they are not content with the Appeals court decision, the Supreme
Court can be asked to oversee the Court of Appeals.
Our Justice Ministry watches from afar, over the provisions of law that the court
uses and we check on the application of the provisions to see if it is correct or
Last week, I received a complaint letter from the UN Center for Human Rights, saying
the conviction of three members of the Khmer Nation Party is unfair. Personally,
I will not get involved because even I, the Minister of Justice, don't have the right
to say the decision is unfair. Only the Appeals Court or the Supreme Court have the
right to say that.
You know their story? One person in the KNP was put in charge of finding someone
to kill Hun Sen's brother in-law, Kov Samuth. He promised $50,000 for the murder.
A moto was bought for the killer. The murder was committed. The intermediary went
to collect money but the person they were to collect from disappeared... They lost
confidence in him and became afraid they would disappear as well so that all traces
of the murder would be erased. So they went to seek police protection. Police put
them in a hotel or an apartment; it was not detention as has been said. They confessed
to everything [and] police arrested Vong Vannak.
The [UNCHR] said they were arrested and held secretly in a place that was not a detention
center and that there was not enough evidence to convict any of them, especially
not Vong Vannak. [But] all three, including Vong Vannak, can contact the Court of
Appeals if they are not happy. The Minister of Justice does not have the right to
Many of the people who attended the trial of Srun Vong Vannak said that Phnom
Penh Municipal Court Judge Nop Sophon appeared to have made his decision before the
trial opened, as he spent only 10 minutes writing his decision - less time than he
needed to read it. Is this normal?
The judge prepares his decision before the trial opens. Before the case opens,
he already has a model. During the trial, issues may be brought up that modify the
judge's decision. If the responses to questioning or testimony are slightly different
than expected, the judge will modify the decision for 10 or 15 minutes at the end
of the trial. If the events during the trial are very different, he must suspend
the trial until a later date. At that time, he will look at additional evidence and
write a decision. Judges always make a map of their decision after looking at the
But are judges afraid to make a decision they believe will go against Hun Sen's
Judges are not afraid of the Prime Minister. He does not have the right to fire,
retire or fine judges. It is the Supreme Council of Magistracy [which does]. Judges
are afraid of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
Critics of the legal system say that it is used to effectively eliminate popular
political figures who oppose Hun Sen.
Either we go after the people who commit crimes, or we do not. In the case of
Prince Ranariddh, do we go after him or not? If we don't, nothing happens. If we
do, the court cannot just decide to go forward. They must move forward based on the
facts, the evidence before they reach their conclusion. In the case of Prince Ranariddh,
the government has asked the court to pursue him for the importation of illegal arms,
negotiations with the Khmer Rouge outside of the law and for bringing Khmer Rouge
forces and weapons to Phnom Penh and other provinces with the intention of overthrowing
the government and seizing power. When there is a complaint before the court, the
court investigates. If there is no evidence, he will not be found guilty. If there
is proof, he will be convicted.
What progress have you made in investigating the 41 cases of "confirmed"
executions in July that are listed in a UN Center for Human Rights report that was
given to the co-premiers?
It is the Interior Ministry's job to investigate. At the Ministry of Justice,
we received a report from [UN Special Envoy for human rights Thomas] Hammarberg but
we can't investigate... the cases of those who were killed. Concerning those who
have disappeared - more than 100, according to the report - prosecutors can verify
whether they were detained and where they are now. Are they free? Where are they?
It is me, the Minister of Justice, who asked my prosecutors to find out. In most
of the provinces mentioned in the report of Mr Hammarberg, there are people who were
detained for illegal movement of arms. They were stopped, but then freed. There are
documents to show the time and place of their release. In Kampong Cham province,
all seven people detained were released in the presence of members of [the human
rights group] Adhoc.
For the 40 found dead, assassinated, etcetera, we don't have any way for prosecutors
to investigate. It is the police who must do that. The report said bodies were found
at Pich Nil in Kampong Speu on Route 4... The prosecutor could not get there because
the area is unsafe.
But I would like to point out another thing. In such a military event that includes
killing, persecution, etcetera, we must compare it to other countries in Africa,
for example, where hundreds of thousands are killed. It is hard to know if people
were killed during military confrontations or from other things. There is a lot of
drug trafficking, commercial business, vengeance in commercial affairs. There is
a lot of vengeance.
What about the case of Undersecretary of State for Defense Krouch Yoeum?
Everyone knew Krouch Yoeum and Chao Sambath were killed a few days after July
6. Everyone in Phnom Penh knew, they just couldn't find their bodies. Krouch Yoeum
hadn't done anything. The Council of Ministers regretted it. He was well-respected.
Personally, I believe Krouch Yoeum was killed during the military engagement on July
If that is true, why were his hands cut off?
I don't know. It is always sleazy when they kill someone like that and cut off
their hands. Why would they cut off his hands?
Some people have suggested it was to prevent the body being identified?
But why did they leave his identity card? It is hard to know. It is possible that
[the killing] is personal vengeance. On the part of the government, I don't think
there was a persecution of Funcinpec and its supporters.
How long do you intend to continue as Minister of Justice, given your health and
I don't think they will replace me. There are only six or seven months until elections.
After elections, I don't know. Personally, you know I am passionate about the work
of reorganizing justice and the work of making justice independent and efficient.
I think it is the most important work of my life. I consecrate my efforts and abilities
to this work. We have made great progress, but this progress is very slow because
there are many problems to resolve.
The suppression of Article 51 of the Law on Civil Servants remains. [Article 51 requires
the permission of the government before the courts can prosecute police, military
or civil servants, which human rights workers say effectively guarantees impunity
to authorities]. An amendment still hasn't been sent to the National Assembly. If
we resolve that, it will be a great step.
Another step is that the provincial police and judges understand now that if they
commit crimes or misdemeanors, they will go before the court and be convicted because,
even if Article 51 is not amended, I have personally made it clear to the Minister
of Interior and the Minister of Defense that these people must be convicted if they
are guilty of crimes. The Ministry of Interior is now more responsive to the Ministry
of Justice's requests. The Ministry of Defense is not moving as fast but I brought
up the issue in the presence of the Defense ministers at a recent National Assembly
The police and civil servants who have committed crimes and misdemeanors are now
brought before the courts. Others now fear the same. That is another step toward
Some observers have expressed concerns that such prosecutions could be used politically,
particularly to attack the remnants of Funcinpec power in the military, provincial
governments or the central government?
There are few Funcinpec members in the [provincial government]. Most of the people
who the prosecutors are going after are CPP, 90 percent. We, at the Ministry of Justice,
don't want to know if they are CPP, Funcinpec or BLDP. We are only interested in
those who commit crimes or misdemeanors. A few months ago, a nephew of [CPP president
Chea Sim] illegally brought Vietnamese people into Cambodia. In the Svay Rieng court,
he was sentenced to two or three months in prison - Chea Sim's own nephew.
I find that we are advancing but we cannot do it too fast because there are many
problems that come from within Cambodian society itself, a society that is disorganized.
Since the coup d'état of 1970, it is a society that has suffered a long trajectory
of tragedy, especially at the end of the Khmer Rouge regime. People lost their senses
and morals. Many lost all morality. Everyone did anything necessary to survive. 'Too
bad for the rest, I'm hungry. I'm going to kill to fill my stomach,' that is ingrained
in human nature. Then, when our stomachs are full, we want a bicycle. When we get
the bicycle, we want a moto. When we get the moto, we want a car. When we get the
car, we want to be rich...That is natural. There are many millionaires among this
very poor population. It is a spirit of 'every man for himself, too bad for the rest.'
Consider the young, the poor youths who see stores full of merchandise: Adidas tennis
shoes, motorcycles, cars. That is what leads kids to crime. That and the gangster
films on television. There is no culture on television. There are only sex-videos,
gangster films, Chinese films... I think Cambodian society is ill, so the organization
of good justice progresses slowly. But I want to make a state of law one day or another.
In the Cambodian judicial system, the Minister of Justice has given an example of
propriety, along with the undersecretary of state and the department heads. The Ministry
of Justice is not corrupt. It is an example for the courts. It is not that they are
bad judges, some are, but they are a minority.
The position of the Minister of Justice is to put his efforts, his soul and even
his personal health [on the line] to reform and make justice independent and effective.
Judges are their own masters. The Minister of Justice never puts his hand in. It
is a matter of applying the law. There is a monitor, it is from top to bottom - influenced
by the strongman - but there isn't a strongman on the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
People say judges are afraid of the Second Prime Minister; they're not. They are
afraid of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
I would like to mention one other thing: Justice is not a wild horse whose mane can
fly in the breeze. It must be controlled and directed with great care.