It's a long-running trend in Cambodian politics: Prime Minister Hun Sen makes a threat, the police make an arrest and the courts – ostensibly independent, per the constitution’s separation of powers – find sufficient justification for the case.
Behind the scenes, one man plays a prominent role in developing the legal grounds used to legitimise what is widely seen as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party wielding of the country’s judicial system as a political weapon, sources say.
Ministry of Justice secretary of state Koeut Rith’s comprehensive knowledge of the law is often called upon to bridge the gap between the CPP’s political objectives and legal outcomes, say several lawyers and a Ministry of Justice official interviewed for this piece.
“He works to defend the policy of the CPP,” said a former ministry official who requested anonymity. “So he is always involved with political cases in Cambodia.”
After graduating from Cambodia’s Royal University of Law and Economics (RULE) in 1999, Rith, in his mid 30s, went on a scholarship to France’s Lyon III University, earning a master’s degree in law and finishing at the top of his class, according to a different source within the legal sector.
Upon returning to Cambodia, he joined the ministry, rising to secretary of state. He has played a key role in drafting legislation, including the new penal code and the three laws governing the judiciary.
Tipped by some to be the next minister of justice, Rith also lectures at RULE, where he is a highly respected law professor. But among his biggest achievements is earning the confidence of Hun Sen, said the source.
“He succeeded from this point of view,” they said, noting Rith was among the youngest members of the CPP’s powerful central committee, inducted in February 2015. “He’s got the trust of the senior officials in the CPP ... this is not very easy at all to be part of the central committee at this age.”
A broader question is whether having people who know best practices working in the interests of the ruling party is simply reinforcing the status quo or is itself a step forward.
Michael Karnavas, a lawyer with the ECCC who was involved in training members of the judiciary in the 1990s, said there was an irony in co-opting law students trained abroad into a system where they became “great public relations agents for the CPP”.
But the legal sector source argued that having high-calibre people like Rith, even within a corrupt system, was a step in the right direction.
“When you justify your state decisions with standards, with legal grounds that are complying with standards, you increase the value of that,” he said.
“In the long term, people after you, they will not remember why you used the law before, they will just remember best practices.”