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New court body seen as a threat to free judiciary

New court body seen as a threat to free judiciary

Extrajudicial oversight violates the Constitution and sidelines the Supreme Council, critics say.

A NEW task force designed to weed out “irregularities” in criminal cases coming before the country’s courts flirts with unconstitutionality and could compromise attempts to forge an independent judicial system in Cambodia, according to government critics who say the necessary mechanisms of oversight are already in place.

The 26-member panel, formed by Prime Minister Hun Sen this month following a request from the Ministry of Interior, is designed to address cases that judges and other court officials are suspected to have mishandled.

In a letter dated September 4, the prime minister said the new task force, to be staffed with police and Justice Ministry officials, would be able to copy case files in order to “inspect, analyse and evaluate” the courts’ conduct in specific cases.

“In the event that irregularities are found at any point in the case’s progress, it must be reported to the minister of interior and/or the minister of defence and/or the minister of justice to take further action”, the letter states. Any more serious problems, the letter adds, must be reported to the “head of government”, Hun Sen.

But opposition leader Sam Rainsy said the new body was a “step backward” for judicial independence and cited it as evidence the government demanded total obedience from court officials.

“The government is strengthening its grip, and the judiciary will lose whatever independence is left to it,” he said on Wednesday.

“When the prime minister wants to do something using the hand of the judiciary [and it is] somewhat reluctant, [he] is now in a position to make that hand completely obedient.”

Sam Rainsy also said the task force duplicated and effectively sidelined the nine-member Supreme Council of the Magistracy (SCM), which is constitutionally charged with protecting the courts’ independence. “By dealing a blow to the … Supreme Council of the Magistracy, this is dealing a blow to the Constitution itself,” he said.

Chan Soveth, a programme officer at local rights group Adhoc, agreed that the task force appeared to violate the Constitution by theatening judges’ independence, describing it as an attempt to “control the justice” meted out by Cambodia’s courts.

Sok Sam Oeun, who heads the Cambodia Defenders Project, also said the new body could impinge on the Constitution if it scares judges into modifying their rulings.

“I don’t want judges to think that if they acquit the accused, it is an ‘irregularity’ because it might impact their decisions. Maybe they will be scared to release [suspects],” he said.

However, Ith Rady, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, whom Hun Sen has appointed to head the body, dismissed claims it violates the Constitution, saying its mandate would not supersede the authority of the courts.

“This is not a review of the criminal cases that have been decided by the courts but is a way of checking the process leading to the court’s decision” from the moment accusations are made to the handing down of verdicts, he said.

“We just want to know how the cases were judged.”

Constitutional tangle
Other analysts said the issues relating to the proposed body were complicated by the vagueness of its mandate.

Sonn Soubert, who sits on the country’s Constitutional Council, said criminal matters – such as the implementation of court verdicts – were the remit of the Ministry of Interior, but that any problems found by the body should be forwarded to the Supreme Council for a resolution. “If the
investigation… results in some kind of irregularity in the functioning of the court, then it has to be addressed to His Majesty the King [Norodom Sihamoni], who is the president of the SCM,” he told the Post.

Naly Pilorge, executive director of local rights group Licadho, said she agreed with the need for the review of some questionable cases, but that the deeply rooted problems with the judiciary would not be solved by undermining it further.

“There are definitely problems between the Ministry of Interior and the courts, and I would agree that there needs to be reviews of some of these cases,” she said.

“[But] a task force composed of police and justice officials should not have jurisdiction over the rulings of judges, as there should be a separation of powers.”

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