Almost two years since Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to reform Cambodia's notoriously
corrupt judiciary with his "iron fist," there has been a shameful lack
of judicial progress, lawmakers and human rights' groups have told the Post.
In fact, some say the atmosphere of fear that stemmed from the edict may have actually
weakened the impartiality and competence of the court system.
"The purpose of [Hun Sen's] 'iron fist' was not to improve the court system,
it was to control the court - this was the problem," SRP lawmaker Son Chhay
told the Post on January 25. "The Prime Minister interfered with the independence
of the court. It has worked for Hun Sen - now he fully controls the court. I believe
this is an abuse of power by the Prime Minister."
Chhay said one of Heng Pov's former complaints was that the police were arresting
real criminals, whom the court then released.
"The purpose was not to strengthen the institutions - as a consequence a number
of people were thrown into prison without trial," Chhay said.
"He [Hun Sen] has succeeded for the courts [in making] a biased tool without
creating a more reliable and independent court," he said.
Recently there have been a number of arrests of and serious charges laid against
Funcinpec and SRP members, seemingly designed to target CPP opposition. At the same
time CPP members often seem to have got off lightly over relatively serious crimes.
Normal citizens, apparently with no money to pay the courts off, continue to serve
severe sentences for minor crimes.
Three Armed Forces generals known to be members of SRP and Funcinpec were arrested
on January 16 by military police in Phnom Penh on charges of robbery and illegal
gathering of armed forces.
After the investigating judge in Battambang wished to throw the case out due to lack
of evidence, Battambang Provincial Prosecutor Sar Yosthavarak laid further charges
of murder on the three. Major General Uth Sakhan, Funcinpec deputy commander of Brigade
70; Brigadier General Khieng Savorn, SRP member; and Brigadier General Men Saran,
deputy commander of RCAF Military Region Two and a former Funcinpec member, remain
in Battambang provincial prison with no announced bail release date.
In January two military police officers paid $750 in compensation to the family of
a 30-year-old man they tortured and killed while in police custody in Kampong Thom
province. After the payment the family withdrew its complaint, and the police officers
In December, Kandal provincial court sentenced recycler Chan Pov, 32, to four years
in prison for stealing 16 coconuts at Takmau market, Kandal province.
On March 3, 2005, Hun Sen made the following indictment of Cambodia's courts to the
annual National Health Congress:
"There are three legs on which the cooking pot rests, the legislative, the executive
and the judicial. One of these legs is broken. We will have to hang the pot up and
we will use the iron fist, Hun Sen's iron fist, to do it."
At the time Chiv Keng, chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court (PPMC) from October
2005, was publicly charged with revamping the capital's inefficient court system.
Many observers consider Keng Hun Sen's point man in his "iron fist" crackdown
on Cambodia's corrupt courts.
"In the past people have considered the PPMC like a market for doing business,"
Keng told the Post in March 2006. "They considered the cases like goods that
they can buy." In the same interview, Keng said that since Hun Sen's speech
and Keng's appointment, the courts had improved considerably.
"The government, the Ministry of Justice, the Council for Juridical Reform,
the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Supreme Court are satisfied with our reform,"
Keng said at the time.
However, Human Rights Watch annual report on Cambodia slammed the courts as being
widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent.
"The courts... continue to be used to advance political agendas, silence critics,
and strip people of their land. The Ministry of Justice continues to have oversight
over the Supreme Council of the Magistracy's secretariat, a disciplinary body for
the judiciary that is meant to be independent," the report said.
"You'll find lawyers saying it ["iron fist"] had the opposite effect
[of improving the courts]," said Jeffrey Kahan, technical adviser of the Cambodian
"It's Samdech Hun Sen's way: although it gets everyone's attention, it's not
a lasting effect. It scared the hell out of the court officials, [so they] weren't
independent. People who shouldn't have been let out were being let out - people were
getting sentenced who shouldn't have been. The proper decisions weren't being made,"
"Judicial reform in Cambodia has not had any effect at all," said Chea
Mony, president of the Free Trade Union.
"The court is under the power of a few generals. When a judge investigates properly,
they are removed. Investigating judge Hing Thirith found that Bon Samnang and Sok
Sam Oeurn were not involved in killing my brother Chea Vichea, so he was removed.
When Hun Sen began using the 'iron fist' over the courts it meant the courts were
not independent," Mony said.
And what does Hun Sen's courts hatchet man Chiv Keng think about all this criticism
of the courts today?
"They may as well be saying all that, as it's advantageous to their party or
group," Keng told the Post.
"They don't know if what they say is the truth or not. In fact, Hing Thirith
was punished... because he committed a lot of other wrongdoings not related to Bon
Sam Nang and Sok Sam Oeurn. He was removed because of his connection to the release
of a group of robbers, the arresting and detention of innocent people, and other
[matters]." Keng said everyone agrees the courts have become much more transparent
and independent over the last year, and that "Hun Sen's three legs" have
remained independent of each other.