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Historic court ruling: money or justice?

Historic court ruling: money or justice?

THE Court of Appeal's overturning of a lower court's verdict for the first time in

its four-year history has fueled the fiercely-political debate over the independence

and competency of the judiciary.

The court's rejection of two drug trafficking convictions against Funcinpec military

policeman Chao Sokhon prompted a swift reaction from the government.

Sokhon, after being freed from jail, was re-arrested by Phnom Penh police - who forced

their way into a United Nations vehicle at Pochentong Airport, as he was about to

leave the country Jan 3 - and three Court of Appeal judges were suspended.

While some Cambodian lawyers and other legal observers saw the Court of Appeal's

ruling as a sign of increasing judicial independence, Minister of Justice Chem Snguon

smelled trouble.

"This case is too flagrant for [me] not to act," he said, explaining why

he temporarily transferred the judges from their posts, effectively suspending them

pending an investigation.

Snguon noted that the Court of Appeal, if it disagreed with a lower court's earlier

decision, usually just reduces the sentence of the convict. Suggesting that to overturn

a verdict outright was abnormal, he added: "The law doesn't say the judges cannot

do that, but it is the first such decision.

"The Minister of Justice cannot close his eyes... Something is going on,"

said Snguon, who noted unconfirmed rumors that Sokhon's wife had paid $70,000 to

the judges. However, no action would be taken against the three judges if their decision

was found to have been untainted and made independently, he said.

The three judges - Um Savuth, Ya Bunleng and Pol Neang - were reluctant to comment

to the Post. But chief judge Pol Neang did say that he didn't understand the minister's

transfer of them. "The court had a basis for its decision. If there is not enough

evidence, we judge in favor of the accused... Our decision is correct."

Sokhon is the former deputy commander of the Sihanoukville military police. He attracted

the public ire of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who put a $10,000 reward on his

arrest, as Funcinpec and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) traded drug-dealing allegations

last year. After Funcinpec police threatened to arrest businessman Mong Reththy,

who is close to Hun Sen, CPP police moved to arrest Sokhon.

Sokhon was convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on two counts, and sentenced

to a total of 18 years in prison - 15 years from a June 27 conviction in connection

with the April seizure of seven tonnes of marijuana in Sihanoukville, and three more

years on a Sept 1 conviction for a drug shipment seized in Hong Kong on an unspecified

date.

The court dossiers, seen by the Post in October, appeared to include little more

than circumstantial evidence; much of the contents was general information on drug

trafficking, with little direct proof against Sokhon.

His lawyer at the initial trial, Mom Luch - who said at the time that the files were

full of irrelevant information - said last week that the Court of Appeal "made

the right decision"

The Court of Appeal, citing a lack of evidence, overturned both convictions and ordered

Sokhon freed Dec 26.

Three days after the decisions were made, Sokhon was released from PJ prison. Both

court decisions, seen by the Post, said the convict was to be freed from prison as

long as he is not being held for other offenses.

Court of Appeal General Prosecutor Henrot Raken, meanwhile, was appealing the court's

decision to the Supreme Court, while Chem Snguon transferred the three judges.

As for Sokhon's rearrest, Henrot Raken and other justice officials claimed the prisoner

should not have been freed until the Supreme Court had ruled on the prosecutor's

appeal.

But one Cambodian lawyer said the idea that two courts must clear someone before

they can be released from prison was "nuts".

Sokhon was rearrested Jan 3 apparently after Municipal Court judge Kann Chhoeun informed

police that he had been released by mistake.

Chem Snguon - who agreed that he does not have the power to remove or sanction judges

- said he had only "temporarily transferred" the three judges "to

prevent them from touching other cases" until an investigation was completed.

He said the final verdicts on the judges and their judgment would be made by Supreme

Court and, ultimately, the Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM), the body empowered

to guarantee the integrity of the judiciary. The SCM recently began operating, after

its establishment was blocked for years by political wrangling, amid Funcinpec allegations

that it would be CPP-biased.

"Until the Supreme Court and the Supreme Council of Magistracy decide, I don't

consider these three judges guilty of any mistakes," Snguon said. "To be

a minister, you must be patient. You hear about dirt every day. You must wait, remember,

observe, look into rumors to see if they carry any weight. I am very patient. I don't

react right away like some people. Some people say Chao Sokhon's wife gave $70,000

to the judges to reach their decisions. I don't know [if it is true], it is just

what I have heard. I have no proof."

In an unusual move which raised more questions about the independence of the judiciary,

Snguon later formed a five-member ministry commission to help the Supreme Court review

the Court of Appeal's decision.

"In order for the Supreme Court to decide, it must have recourse to another

body," Under-Secretary Ly Vouch Leng said Jan 14, confirming the commission's

establishment.

Another Ministry of Justice official, speaking on condition of anonymity, offered

a succinct interpretation of the ministry's view of the judge's overturning of the

convictions: "The judges made the wrong decision," he said.

There are signs, however, that the original municipal court convictions of Sokhon

were not air-tight.

Both Minister Chem Snguon and prosecutor Henrot Raken suggested the need for further

investigation into the evidence surrounding the initial two convictions.

Of the conviction relating to the Hong Kong drug seizure, Henrot Raken said the marijuana

was found inside shipping containers belonging to Sokhon. But whether the drugs were

put inside them before or after leaving Cambodia is "unclear", he said,

adding that information from the Hong Kong police was awaited.

Snguon, meanwhile, noted that questions persisted over the politically-charged Sihanoukville

marijuana seizure, which led to Sokhon's other conviction.

At the time Funcinpec blamed Mong Reththy, a prominent businessman who builds schools

for Hun Sen. Hun Sen publicly defended Reththy, saying anyone who tried to arrest

him without a court warrant better wear "steel on their head".

CPP police, after Hun Sen publicly offered $10,000 for Chao Sokhon's arrest, tagged

the Funcinpec military policeman as responsible for the Sihanoukville marijuana shipment.

Snguon, acknowledging that Reththy's guilt or innocence had never been addressed

"in detail", claimed that the ministry would now review the evidence against

him.

"Now we will look at that file to see if Mong Reththy - the friend of Hun Sen

- is guilty. Because there are opinions that he was. Me, I don't know, but we have

to clarify this," the minister said.

Independent observers with knowledge of drug trafficking and the Sokhon case cited

their own unspecified evidence of Sokhon's involvement with drugs, but noted that

he may not be guilty of the specific cases he was convicted for.

Cambodia Bar Association president Say Bory, meanwhile, said that the Court of Appeal's

overturning of Sokhon's convictions is a sign that judges "are daring to act

more independently", regardless of their motives.

"If we want to be impartial, we must wait for the Supreme Council of Magistracy.

But there too, people will doubt their independence," he added.

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