The National Assembly yesterday appointed a ruling Cambodian People’s Party stalwart to fill the final seat of the judicial body that oversees the Kingdom’s judges and prosecutors and whose political independence is already a target of criticism.
A majority of 66 parliamentarians voted Ith Rady, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice and a former judge, to the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which has the power to appoint, transfer, suspend and remove judges and prosecutors.
Lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party were at the session, but they turned in blank ballots in protest of the vote.
The process for filling the seats was outlined in a law passed in May on the organisation and functioning of the Supreme Council. That long-awaited law was one of three passed in the same month, ostensibly to bolster court independence, but which rights groups said had the opposite effect due to a lack of public consultation.
“It’s our demonstration against reforms that we do not see as productive for the real independence of the judiciary,” CNRP public affairs head Mu Sochua said of her party’s decision not to vote on one of five candidates yesterday.
Rady initially received just 60 votes, less than the absolute majority required, suggesting that some CPP lawmakers had dissented from the party line. But after a coffee break, a second-round of voting saw him sail through. One other candidate received a single vote.
Three of the nine-member council’s positions are traditionally filled by the Minister of Justice, the Supreme Court president, and the Supreme Court prosecutor. The King presides over the council.
Under the law, legal professionals also have to be elected to the council – one each by the National Assembly, Senate, higher court judges, higher court prosecutors, lower court judges and lower court prosecutors.
Sam Prachea Meanith, a Justice Ministry spokesman, confirmed yesterday that four judges and prosecutors had been elected as members of the council last week.
He named them as Supreme Court judge and Khmer Rouge tribunal pre-trial chamber president Prak Kimsan, lower court judge Sam Bunthon, Supreme Court prosecutor Seng Bun Kheang and lower court prosecutor Srea Rattanak.
The Senate also elected Oum Sarith, a judge at the Appeals Court, to the council, officials at the Senate said.
Sarith once served as head of Phnom Penh Municipal Court but was removed from the position in 2000 by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy for alleged corruption.
A prominent lawyer that declined to be named due the sensitivity of the matter said that all the members recently chosen for the Supreme Council were closely tied to the ruling party.
“All judges belong to the CPP and [will continue to] unless we have a law that judges and prosecutors are independent and not aligned with any political party,” the source said.
The Law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors – one of the three passed in May – was criticised for failing to include such a provision.
Sam Prachea Meanith, the Justice Ministry spokesman, said he could not comment on criticisms about the election of Supreme Council members.
But Ith Rady said he believed it was important that judges were overseeing judges.
“I still believe that if we are overseeing something, we must understand and know about that thing clearly,” he said.
Rady, who will resign from the Ministry of Justice but not from the CPP, also dismissed suggestions that he would serve the interests of the party on the council.
“My aim is to provide justice for the people. We do not think of party interest. When we hold a function somewhere, we must think about everybody’s interests.” He added, however, that when election time comes around, he would not hesitate to campaign for the CPP.
While the opposition party would “at some point” try to get the three judicial laws amended, Sochua admitted that it would be tough for the party to get the legislation back on the floor
“We don’t have the majority at the permanent committee or 50 per cent plus one [on the floor], so it’s unlikely it could be amended,” she said.