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First of three contentious laws passes

Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday morning. The National Assembly agreed to adopt the first of three judicial draft laws
Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday morning. The National Assembly agreed to adopt the first of three judicial draft laws. Heng Chivoan

First of three contentious laws passes

The National Assembly yesterday passed in a landslide vote the first of three judicial draft laws – the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Courts – in a move that signalled to observers that passage of the remaining two was practically a fait accompli.

Sixty-four Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers – one was absent – voted unanimously to approve the draft law in its current form despite an ongoing parliamentary boycott by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and over the objections of civil society, which has blasted the laws for their opaque drafting process and their potential to blur the line between the Kingdom’s executive and judiciary.

One of the biggest changes called for in yesterday’s bill is the creation of specialised courts, a move that one legal expert characterised as unnecessarily complicated.

“I would like to thank the National Assembly, which adopted the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Courts today,” Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana told lawmakers yesterday, adding that the aim of the law was “to make our people trust in the courts”.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, however, maintained the party’s position that the current assembly was not legitimate, and promised to fix any flawed legislation passed during the opposition’s absence.

“We will amend all of the laws that do not serve the interests of the nation when we have full power in the government and in the parliament,” he said.

Nonetheless, observers, including political analyst Kem Ley, said yesterday that the passage of the law’s companion legislation was only a matter of time. Ley characterised the hasty passage of the law as part of a broader scramble to enact more restrictive legislation in light of the CPP’s losses in last year’s national elections.

“I went down to the communities, down to the villages; it’s very clear right now that the supporters of the CPP are in the minority,” he said. “So the group of the CPP in the central committee understands clearly the situation. If they move forward as a democratic country, they will not win the next election. Every law, every reform is to keep control on power, not to find justice for the people.”

Duch Piseth, trial-monitoring program coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, also said the two sister bills were as good as approved. “[The CPP] made it clear again and again that they would pass these laws in a few days, so we are sure that they’re going to pass these laws quickly,” Piseth said, expressing concern over the lack of debate on the bills.

In addition to enacting onerous regulations, Piseth continued, the law would ensure that “the Ministry of Justice controls, administratively and financially, the courts”.

Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun has also expressed concern over the law's threat to judicial independence, as well as logistical hurdles brought about by its creation of specialised courts – for criminal, civil, commercial and labour cases, each overseen by its own president – within Cambodia’s municipal and provincial courts.

“It is too many layers,” he said on Wednesday.

Additionally, he continued, the law would deepen the Justice Ministry’s control by codifying its de facto power over court clerks, ensure that civil cases would continue to be overseen by often-biased prosecutors and enact a system in which small-claims cases would be decided upon, in part, by non-professional counsellors.

The assembly yesterday also began its read-through of the next draft law, the Law on the Role of Judges and Prosecutors, and is expected to continue reading the bill today.

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