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Rights groups criticize choice of new justice minister

Rights groups criticize choice of new justice minister

Human rights groups have reacted with dismay to the appointment of Neav Sithong as Cambodia's new Justice Minister citing a 1998 incident in which Sithong's bodyguards shot dead a youth, but were never sent to trial.

Sithong was governor of Kampong Speu at the time of the event, described by activists as a typical impunity case. According to the police report 17-year-old Say Sophea entered the Governor's compound February 23, 1998 to steal chickens.

The bodyguards told human rights investigators that they ordered the youth to stop and, when he attempted to escape, all three opened fire hitting him in the head, waist, chest and thigh.

"My concern is that if he didn't take care to see justice done in this case how can he take of justice in all of Cambodia," said one human rights activist, who asked not to be named, adding: "I will be raising this issue at the next Human Rights Action Committee (HRAC) meeting."

Sithong reacted angrily to suggestions that he may have perverted the course of justice; he defended the actions of his bodyguards in the case.

"I think that we should provide them with a reward because they did a good job," he said.

"If my guards had been careless then I might not be here now," he said, adding that the intruder's real motive was assassination.

"Why would you steal chickens from the governor? These people who say it was a robbery - I won't say they are stupid, but they don't think," he said.

Sithong said he did not know why the case had never proceeded. Human rights activists suspect political interference.

The investigating judge, Yoeu Yanny, said that prosecution was "too complicated" to proceed.

"The victim's mother did not file a complaint for compensation with the provincial court in Kampong Speu, but the Appeal Court is still open for the family to pursue the case," Yanny said.

Sithong said that he will increase attempts to reform the judicial system and address the 'culture of impunity' in Cambodia.

"We have had a habit of the culture of impunity [in the Cambodian justice system] but I support punishment for the wrongdoer," said Sithong. "I will do everything according to the power with my position not only to address the culture of impunity, but to address all cases in which irregularities in the judicial system are criticized."

Rights NGOs contacted by the Post said they were "not optimistic" about Sithong's appointment, but said they hoped to work cooperatively and give him a chance to prove his capabilities.

"In all appointments it is desirable to see personalities free of stigma, [but] he can prove his integrity through his actions as minister," said Suriya Dungel of UN Human Rights (COHCHR).

Dungel said that his office would "wait and see" what Sithong was able to deliver on judicial reform, emphasizing that while reform had been slow under Vithon, a change of minister alone would not transform Cambodia's judicial system.

"Reform needs the support of the Prime Minister and the legislature to be successful because they are the only ones who can stop the various ministries from interfering in judicial matters," he said.

HRAC echoed this view earlier this week when it wrote to the King seeking reform of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.

"Members of the committee should resign from all other positions, including the Acting Chair Chea Sim," said a HRAC member.

Sithong has also come under fire since accepting the position as Justice Minister. MP Sam Rainsy claimed that Sithong had paid a bribe to secure the new position. Both Sithong and the Funcinpec leader vehemently denied that claim.

"It is not a habit of Norodom Ranariddh and Funcinpec to accept bribes in exchange for government posts. I would stake my life against Sam Rainsy's over his allegation that I accepted a bribe," Ranariddh said.

Sithong, currently prosecutor general of the Supreme Court, replaces outgoing justice minister, Ouk Vithun sacked by Prime Minister Hun Sen over unspecified 'irregularities' in Vithun's handling of the powerful portfolio.

"I think that it is not time to inform the national and international community about the mistakes of Minister Ouk Vithun. We have to talk about our hope for the reform of the Ministry of Justice. This is very important for our nation," said Funcinpec leader Prince Ranariddh.

The cabinet reshuffle resulted in Hun Sen advisor Chan Sarun taking the Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries position, replacing acting minister Chan Tong Yve, who was recently made a personal advisor the PM. Ly Thuch took over the Ministry for Rural Development.

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