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Legal aid groups off the hook?

Legal aid groups off the hook?

A BREAKTHROUGH may be on the horizon in the long dispute between the Bar Association

and foreign-funded legal aid groups over the right to protect Cambodia's poor in

court.

The association has stopped calling for the closure of Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC)

and the Cambodia Defender Project (CDP), whose Ministry of Justice mandate expired

Dec 31.

Association president Say Bory said that he was following the wishes of Minister

of Justice Chem Snguon.

Snguon said he had told Bory that "You are free to do what you like, the minister

doesn't want to put his hands into your affairs," and that the association was

free to negotiate directly with LAC and CDP.

Demands that international funds for the legal aid groups go to the Bar Association,

and that all legal aid lawyers be supervised by the association have been dropped,

according to people involved in the negotiations.

Bar council member Heng Chi said he had been authorized by Say Bory to make a deal.

But he would not elaborate, saying that oustanding issues needed to be worked out

with the two NGOs' foreign funders.

Bory said Jan 13 that a deal could be struck if the NGOs were flexible. However,

"if they want to continue to be inflexible, it won't work."

CDP acting director Suon Visal said Jan 14 that some of the key issues would be brought

up with the organization's funders - the main one is USAID - in Washington.

Visal said a demand that the legal aid groups work "in the name" of the

Bar Association was still unresolved. The bar had asked the CDP to change its name,

but he thought the matter could be resolved by including the words "Kingdom

of Cambodia Bar Association" on the NGO's stationary.

Others involved in the negotiations, however, suggested that USAID and other funders

will not accept a loss of autonomy to the legal aid groups. In particular, they said,

donors would not give money if they felt that the groups, because they were under

the Bar Association auspices, were no longer entirely independent.

LAC staff declined to comment.

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