I N a cramped, dimly-lit tailor shop on the third-floor of a tenement building near
Psar Thmei, Toch Linara carefully hand-finishes one of the last in a $1,470 order
of long silk robes, colored black, purple and white.
"It is an honor to do this job because my work is appreciated by my clients,"
says the 40-year-old seamstress.
But the robes represent more than Linara's high craft. They could be seen as symbols
of political wrangling over one of the cornerstones of the Kingdom's Constitution
- the judiciary.
Today, 42 new trainee judges will be presented with the robes - called "silks"
- before 14 of them depart for provincial courts around the country.
They all finished a year's training with the Ministry of Justice at the end of 1995.
Since then they have been "drifting"; some have had to drive moto-taxis
and cyclos to make ends meet, said trainee judge Tan Sarong.
The 14 who have jobs - as "trainee judges" at least - are mostly from the
Cambodian People's Party (CPP). The other 28 will have to put their new robes into
their wardrobes for a day sometime in the future. They'll probably go back to their
motos and cyclos.
Officially, none of the 42 can be sworn in as real judges until the Supreme Council
of Magistracy (SCM) is formed. That's where the big problems start.
The SCM - nine members sitting for a five-year term - will hire and discipline judges,
guarantee the independence of the judiciary, and ensure the "good functioning"
of the Kingdom's courts.
King Norodom Sihanouk will be its chairman. Other members will be Minister of Justice
Chem Snguon (CPP), Supreme Court Chief Dith Munty (CPP), Supreme Court General Prosecutor
Hang Somphearith (Funcinpec), Appeal Court Chief Seng Ron (Funcinpec), Appeal Court
General Prosecutor Hang Roraken (CPP), and three other judges to be elected.
Three of this group will also sit on the powerful Constitutional Council - another
independent body yet to be formed - which will review laws passed by the National
Assembly and be the final authority on Constitutional matters.
A legal observer, who would not be named, said the SCM was not expected to be set
up before the 1998 elections because of disagreement within the two major parties.
"If the SCM were set up now it is sure to belong to the Cambodian People's Party
[CPP] because most of the judges and prosecutors are members of the CPP. Funcinpec
has put pressure on the King not to set up the SCM. I am sure if the SCM is not being
set up, it is because of the King", he said.
Other sources said CPP was preventing the SCM's establishment, by refusing to share
its membership with Funcinpec.
Funcinpec has proposed that it nominate three members of the SCM, CPP four and BLDP
CPP, according to a Funcinpec official who wouldn't be identified, is insisting that
it should hold all the seats.
Another highly-placed official said that Justice Minister Snguon was instrumental
in stymieing the SCM's formation.
"Snguon has asked [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen not to set up the SCM, because
he [Sgnuon] would lose power.
"Once it is set up, all the Minister of Justice would be is one member of the
SCM," he added, noting that the hiring and firing of judges and other duties
would no longer fall exclusively under ministerial control.
Sngoun, when interviewed, expressed his willingness to have the SCM formed soon.
He said he had reported to the King that there were enough members ready and willing
to compose the council and that he was waiting for the King to hold a meeting.
Contributing to the lack of progress in forming the SCM, experts say, is that its
existence would mean that the Constitutional Council would come a step nearer to
being formed. "And no-one seems to want this independent body set up to scrutinize
the Government's decisions and laws," said a Western legal expert.
Uk Vithun, Secretary of State for Justice (Funcinpec), said: "If the Supreme
Council of Magistracy is formed, it must be formed under the image of the independent
"If it is just formed and not independent, and chooses bad judges to be in the
SCM and punishes others, it is useless. It is just the name."
Vithun said the King was waiting for assurances that the SCM would be independent,
and that he was very sad because people complained to him everyday.
Vithun said he hoped the National Assembly and the co-Prime Ministers would soon
announce the formation of the SCM because, without it, it was hard for Cambodians
to get real justice from the court system.
"People complain to the King, the National Assembly, the Prime Ministers, Council
of Ministers and to human rights groups because of unjust convictions.
"People are crying out for justice. [As] Secretary of State of Justice, I see
that some convictions are wrong... but I have no right to interfere," Vithun
Vithun said 90 per cent of judges commit wrongdoings and people had no confidence
in the courts.
He said low salaries and a lack of independence from the executive wing of Government
had lead to court ineffiencies.
Some legal observers, meanwhile, say the court system has worsened, particularly
in the provinces, and corruption is rife.
The head of one human rights group said serious problems existed in Kompong Cham,
where local authorities and foreign companies abused people's land rights; and in
Kampot, where the military is so powerful that, if a court judgement goes against
them, they harass judges. Sometimes they stop court proceedings.
"It is difficult for judges and prosecutors to work against soldiers. It is
difficult for them to charge soldiers," he said.
There are 90 judges and 50 prosecutors working in Cambodia.Some provinces, however,
have only one judge and one prosecutor.
Fourteen of the 42 new judges graduating today have been assigned by Snguon, under
Royal decree, to work as trainees in Phnom Penh, Kampot and Prey Veng. This, Snguon
said, was "just to calm the anxiety of the new judges wanting jobs."
Some of the new judges, keen for work, sent a letter a few months ago to the King
urging that the SCM be formed quickly.
One of the 14 who will go to work as trainee judges, Mong Munychariya, said he would
have no right to decide anything inside the court, but would do whatever the court
director told him to do.
Khuth Sopeang, one of those who signed the letter to the King, said he has been staying
at home for the past year, doing nothing, supported by his parents-in-law.
Sopeang, who formerly worked at the Ministry of Justice for five years, said he gave
up that job when he began the judges' course.
"I don't know what to do because I have no money. Even if I wanted to be a moto-taxi
driver, I have no motorcycle."
However, he said he has no regrets about being jobless. He knows he just has to be
patient and wait for his chance, "because this is the country's internal affairs."
Sopeang, who belongs to no political party, said: "Being a judge, I don't want
to be in any party because I could not find justice for the people."
Another judge, Sarong, a graduate from Russia who currently works at a department
of the Ministry of Justice, said: "If I become a judge, I can find justice for
" I want to change the old things. I want to change the society and the country
to implement laws, as so far people have said judges are corrupt and unjust.
"And I want to have good relation with other judges.
"If there is no Supreme Council of Magistracy, it is hard because no one will
punish judges who commit offenses. If there is no SCM I cannot do the job."
The trainees' new silks - paid for by 28 American judges who each donated $35 to
have them made - "will make people more confident with the new judges,"
"And the people want us to start as soon as possible."
Linara, meanwhile, unaware of the larger issues that lie behind the silk gowns falling
across her old sewing machine, has just been worrying about doing the best job she
can with the complicated French styles.
"It is much more difficult and time consuming than normal sewing. Just one robe
takes two to three days to be done, but I am happy with my work."