A BOUT 90 NGO-trained Cambodian "defenders" who represent defendants in criminal court cases may be forced to stop their work.
Minister of Justice Chem Snguon has made it plain he does not want the defenders working and sees no role for them in the near future.
Human rights NGOs oppose the loss of the defenders - trained with hundreds of thousands of dollars of funding from UNTAC and foreign aid donors - saying poor people will be left without access to legal representation.
"There's a real possibility that there will be no defenders in many areas of the country," said one.
What was till now a niggling dispute between the minister and the five or six NGOs who train Cambodians to be defenders, appears to be escalating.
In a November 5 letter to United Nations Center for Human Rights director Daniel Premont, Chem Snguon asked him to intervene to stop the training of defenders.
The minister's letter complained that such training projects had been set up without consultation or permission from the Ministry of Justice.
It said that defenders were being trained with "texts and practices which are different from those existing in Cambodia".
The Cambodian government was doing its best to restructure the judicial system, including the training of lawyers and the establishment of a Bar Association, according to Minister Snguon.
The Minister's letter added: "I can only attract your attention to the risks taken by the NGO project organizers that, by training a category of persons who will disappear and therefore creating frustrations and dissatisfaction, they then risk upsetting judicial functioning."
The letter says those Cambodians who wanted to be lawyers should register to take entrance examinations for law school.
A human rights worker, who asked not to be named, said the defenders were performing valuable work and offered the only free legal representation service to the poor.
It would be some years before Cambodia was producing enough lawyers to take over their work, particularly as new graduates were likely to go into the more lucrative civil and business law fields.
In the meantime, the government's policy would "knock out virtually all the defenders currently working".
Just as criminal defendants were beginning to have access to legal representation, it would be taken away from them.
A spokeswoman for the Cambodian Defenders Project, referred to by Chem Snguon in his letter, said she hoped the minister would change his mind.
"We understand that qualified lawyers will be (graduating) but in the interim we'd like to work with the Minister of Justice, other groups and judges to offer a service which is needed."
She said any perception that the project taught United States law, because it was heavily funded by the United States Government's USAID agency, was wrong.
"Defenders have been trained in the laws of Cambodia - UNTAC law and State of Cambodia law and the constitution - and in basic defenders' advocacy skills," she said.
The project, which has this year trained 25 Cambodians from around the country, had recently started representing defendants in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court at the invitation of the court president.
The president, Judge Oum Sarith, told the Post the defenders appeared to be "very good".
"They know the law and the points to defend the people on. The accused need them and rely on them to offer a defense."
He said the defenders helped to present the other side of a court prosecution, making it easier for judges to decide what sentence to impose.
While there were other people acting as defenders, they charged high fees which poorer people could not afford.
Chem Snguon told the Post he remained unconvinced the defenders were needed, believing that new law graduates could take over their duties.
NGOs, he said, "can do what they want but the government will not recognize these people who come from these organizations".
The Cambodian Defenders Project started its training in March this year.