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Int’l bar group rips Kingdom’s courts

A panel of international legal experts from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute presents their findings during a forum in Phnom Penh yesterday morning.
A panel of international legal experts from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute presents their findings during a forum in Phnom Penh yesterday morning. Hong Menea

Int’l bar group rips Kingdom’s courts

A delegation of international legal experts from the International Bar Association’s (IBA) Human Rights Institute has found that Cambodia’s judiciary is ridden with endemic corruption, bribery and political influence, and has recommended the IBA reconsider the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s membership in the international body.

Released yesterday, the study Justice versus Corruption: Challenges to the Independence of the Judiciary in Cambodia paints a bleak picture, describing what lies behind the public’s “toxic” lack of trust in the Kingdom’s legal system.

Based on a weeklong research visit in April and interviews conducted with Cambodian lawyers, judges, NGOs and others, it found Cambodia’s judiciary, at all levels, is riddled with corruption, cases are overwhelmingly decided based on bribes or political interests, and three laws passed last year to regulate the sector have cemented the executive’s control over the courts.

Among its recommendations, which include fundamental reform to reduce the Ministry of Justice’s power over the courts, the report says the IBA should re-examine the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s (BAKC) IBA membership.

It concluded that BAKC plays an “unconstructive, frequently obstructionist and biased” role in the development of Cambodia’s legal profession and also noted reports that applicants to the bar were made to pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes for admittance.

Dr Philip Tahmindjis, the IBA Human Rights Institute’s director, among those who visited in April, said the level of judicial corruption in Cambodia was staggering.

“We have seen a lot of corruption in other countries, but nothing on the endemic level that appears to be going on here,” Tahmindjis said.

The report, said Mark Wassouf, British barrister and IBA researcher, was initially targeted at assessing three laws introduced by the government last year, covering the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the status of judges and prosecutors, and the organisation of the courts, but also addressed the vast challenges confronting the courts.

The laws themselves, he said, had legitimised the executive’s already entrenched political control over the courts, with the “overarching” concern being the justice minster’s “problematic”, “pervasive” and “prominent” role in appointing, promoting, disciplining and removing judges.

According to the report, the Supreme Council of Magistracy’s nominal head, King Norodom Sihamoni, rarely chairs the body – which has the power to appoint, promote, discipline and remove judges – leaving most meetings in the hands of the minister of justice.

Researchers were also told judges aligned to the CPP were much more likely to advance in their careers, while most serving judges belonged to the ruling party.

The team also repeatedly heard BAKC was “highly politicised”, seen as aligned to the CPP, and neglected to defend its members associated with the opposition.

The study also noted the “troubling” accusations that both lawyers and judges had to pay significant sums to enter the profession.

According to the report’s sources, bribes to enter the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions range from $30,000 to $50,000.

There were also some suggestions, the authors noted, that it cost $20,000 to enter the bar as a trainee and $30,000 for those who had served as a judge for five years.

Further, the supply of new judges and lawyers was kept “artificially low” despite chronic staff shortages, with about 50 to 60 new lawyers and the same amount of new judges permitted each year, the report stated.

Yesterday, current BAKC president Bun Honn declined to comment, saying he had yet to see the report, which notes that BAKC had denied the claims.

As for day-to-day court proceedings, some 90 per cent of cases involve bribes in one form or another, a group of legal professionals told the delegation, both for swaying verdicts and for procedural services such as paying clerks to follow up on cases.

Anecdotal evidence, the report says, suggests judges “routinely fail” to observe basic standards of professional and ethical conduct: from answering phones during trials, to claims that judges are routinely “instructed” by members of the executive to deliver certain verdicts.

“We tried to find the names of judges who were independent minded and who don’t accept bribes,” said Wassouf.

“We got one anecdote from one very admirable lawyer who said that he had dealt with a judge who he knew hadn’t accepted a bribe and he thought the judge had ruled on the merits of his case.

“That was one lawyer, and he said it had happened to him once.”

He said the team also found cases of clerks and bailiffs usurping the role of judges, by exacting bribes from defendants and writing the judgment themselves.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin yesterday denied the ministry interfered in the judiciary, saying the authors’ research was narrow.

He said the sector had “some problems” but, overall, the judiciary was not in a bad condition and progress was being made.

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