CHHIM Sereivuth and his family are no strangers to Phnom Penh Municipal Court building
- in fact, they live there.
For 17 years, Sereivuth, his wife and a family of four have occupied two rooms on
the ground-floor of what is the busiest courthouse.
And they won't budge until the State pays them compensation - $20,000 by their assessment
- to re-locate in the capital.
"I no longer want to live here, but the cost of buying a new house in Phnom
Penh is very expensive," said Sereivuth. "If the Ministry of Justice gives
us the money to buy another house, then we will leave at once."
Sereivuth, an engineer with Regie des Eaux in Phnom Penh, said he negotiated with
court officials and agreed on a compensatory package of $20,000 to be divided equally
between the two families. Six months on, he is still awaiting payment.
According to the Urban Sector Group, an NGO which deals with property ownership issues,
$20,000 is a reasonable price. And technically, Sereivuth owns his piece of this
government building, having lived there before squatters were given ownership rights
through a 1987 State of Cambodia law.
But the presence of these families has their neighbors - the court's judges and clerks
- fuming, even though two new courtrooms were inaugurated in November.
"We cannot work peacefully," said Nup Sophon, one of the court's most senior
judges. "We are compelled to work in cramped and noisy conditions."
Even though the new courtrooms provided some more space, there still is not enough
room to accommodate comfortably the court's staff of 90, he said.
Sophan's office, which he shares with several others, measures approximately five-by-eight
meters. Sophan noted that the court was about to absorb eight new judges who have
just graduated from a French-government sponsored judicial training program.
Other court workers complain about the smell of boiling rice and other cooking, the
families' laundry hanging on a clothesline outside and their garbage piled up along
the fenced-in courtyard.
Sereivuth's claim that the court had settled on $20,000 was confirmed by Judge Sophan,
who, for his part, claims that the money had never come through from the Ministry
of Justice (MOJ).
According to an MOJ official who is handling the case, soon after his ministry received
the Municipal Court's request for compensation money, it was forwarded to the Ministry
of Finance (MOF) only to be promptly denied.
"The Ministry of Justice sent a letter to the Ministry of Finance requesting
the necessary funds to help the two families," he said. "Unfortunately,
they said it was impossible because the national budget could not allow for it, and
that each family could get no more than $3,000."
The situation, according to foreign legal advisers, not only points to the disarray
in the courts, but also illustrates the contempt in which Cambodian government officials
hold the legal system.
"It shows what little respect the government has for the nationwide court system,"
said a foreign lawyer, who regularly visits the Municipal Court. "This is the
most important court in Cambodia and it's being treated like a government warehouse."
"No other ministry would be allowed to suffer the indignity of having a family
live inside a government building. In most cases they would have been relocated by
now. Can you imagine this absurdity happening at the Ministry of Interior or Council
"A [quarter] of one percent is all that is allocated to justice in a country
where Defense takes up [about half] of the national budget," the lawyer said.
"So if they're serious about the Rule of Law and the system of justice in Cambodia,
they are going have to put their money where their mouth is, because when it comes
to fancy cars, first-class travel, and unlimited expense accounts, there always seems
to be money for whatever government officials want."
Larger issues aside, Sereivuth and his family have no intention to budge, adding
a live daily reminder for the judges of current problems within the legal system.