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Top judicial body to convene at last

S OON after King Norodom Sihanouk leaves Cambodia, the nation's top judicial body

will convene for the first time since it was created nearly three years ago, according

to Minister of Justice Chem Snguon.

The King has said he will not preside over the Supreme Council of Magistracy's first

meeting, expected next month, and asked National Assembly president Chea Sim to take

his place.

"The council will convene after the King departs. As long as he is there, Chea

Sim cannot convene the council," Chem Snguon said in an Oct 20 interview, adding

that no date had been set.

Justice officials explained that, because of constitutional separation of judicial

and legislative powers, Chea Sim cannot preside over the council and the National

Assembly at the same time. Once the King leaves, Chea Sim becomes the acting head

of state and is relieved of his parliamentary duties.

Snguon, who faces a similar conflict of interest as he is an MP and is also assignd

a slot on the council, has nominated Under-secretary of State for Justice Ly Vouch

Leang, a fellow CPP member, to fill in for him.

"If there is no one else, I will do it," she said when contacted about

her appointment.

Some legal observers have criticized the Minister's nomination, arguing that it is

unconstitutional because Snguon could have the ability to sway the council via his

nominee.

The council - responsible for disciplining, replacing and swearing in judges - has

not met since it was set up by law in 1994 because of stiff disagreement within the

coalition government over who will fill its nine positions.

First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh repeatedly called for half of the council's

seats to be given to Funcinpec to help balance what he called the CPP domination

of the courts. Officials loyal to the CPP flatly rejected the prince's proposal.

Since the prince's violent ouster in July, the disagreements appear to have come

to an end, justice officials said.

Y Dan, the Ministry of Justice's director of personnel, said the six permanent slots

on the council will be filled by Chea Sim, Ly Vouch Leang (on Chem Snguon's behalf),

and the presidents and prosecutors of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.

Three provisional seats will be held by Phnom Penh Municipal Court president Um Sarith,

Supreme Court judge Riel Moun and the ministry's chief of criminal and civil affairs,

Ti Neng, according to Y Dan.

Those three seats will eventually be taken over by representatives elected by all

of the nation's judges, in line with the law on the Supreme Council of Magistracy,

although the law does not stipulate when the vote is to take place.

At the council's first meeting, the nomination of 42 new trained judges will be at

top of the agenda, Chem Snguon said, noting that the nation's 132 hard pressed judges

could use the help.

"Then there will be the nomination of judges to replace those who are retiring,

starting with those who sit on the [council] itself," he said.

The Appeals Court President and the Supreme Court prosecutor and president are all

likely to be changed, because they are due to retire or be replaced anyway, justice

officials said.

Another dozen provincial and local judges beyond the retirement age of 55 are waiting

to retire as well, Snguon said.

He added that the council will later consider judicial corruption, and nominations

for the Constitutional Council, the country's supreme legal body, also never formed

because of political wrangling.

The Constitutional Council is seen by many observers as crucial to holding free and

fair elections in the event that next year's scheduled ballot is contested.

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