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Trials and tribulations at the Ministry of Justice

Trials and tribulations at the Ministry of Justice


In the wake of the contradiction-ridden Licadho human rights workers'

trial in Sihanoukville two weeks ago, the Ministry of Justice's Secretary of

State Suy Nuo and Undersecretary of State Oum Bun Thoeun spoke with Bou

Saroeun and Phelim Kyne about the challenges involved with the

establishment of a fair and equitable legal system in Cambodia.

IMPUNITY, corruption, extrajudicial execution and torture: a glance at any of

Cambodia's newspapers on any given day provides a grim accounting of the

failings, excesses and abuses of Cambodia's legal system.

Blame the

judges, says Suy Nou, Secretary of State (Fun) for the Ministry of Justice


According to Nou, the source of many of the shortcomings of

Cambodia's legal system lies with judges who are "unqualified" for the

responsibility of rendering fair and reasoned assessments of alleged violations

of Cambodian law.

"Cambodia lacks qualified personnel to act as judges,"

Nou said. "Some judges in Cambodia have never been lawyers ... they are not

qualified for the job they do," he said.

Soy Nou ... 'the most serious problem is judges' salaries'

Nou adds that even those judges

with adequate legal training are crippled by a salary structure that he contends

seriously hampers proper execution of the Kingdom's laws.

"The most

serious problem is [judges'] salaries," Nou said. "Lack of money [for judges]

means that they can't provide 100% justice."

However, Nou rejects the

suggestion that underpaid judges might supplement their meager incomes with

payoffs from wealthy individuals in return for "favorable" judgments.

Instead, Nou compares judges to the Kingdom's equally underpaid

teachers, who must take part-time jobs outside their regular duties to make ends


"Judges are like teachers ... they can't teach eight hours because

they have other jobs," Nou said. "Judges' salaries cause them to not have enough

time to adequately investigate cases."

Nou points to the 1994

establishment of the Supreme Council of Magistrates, (SCM) whose mandate is to

monitor the performance of Cambodia's judges and prosecutors, as a symbol of the

government's commitment to professionalize the King-dom's judiciary.


asked why the SCM had only met twice since its establishment five years ago, Nou

is visibly perplexed. "I really don't know," he admitted.


critically, the SCM's Disciplinary Committee, designed to investigate and

reprimand judges and prosecutors deemed to have acted improperly, remains only

at the paper stage.

According to Nou, the belated establishment of the

SCM Disciplinary Committee is a priority of Justice Minister Uk


"Uk Vithun has submitted documents for the establishment of the

Disciplinary Committee to the SCM," Nou said. "Hopefully at the SCM's next

meeting the Disciplinary Committee will be approved."

Nou conceded that

in the wake of the recent trial of Licadho human rights workers Kim Sen and Meas

Minear in Sihanoukville, there was a need for a body with the powers of the SCM

Disciplinary Committee is acute.

International human rights organizations

such as Human Rights Watch and the Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights deemed

the pair's arrest "unlawful" and their subsequent detention


Nou makes it plain that the Ministry of Justice regards the

Sihanoukville affair as a serious embarrassment.

"The detention of the

two [Licadho workers] was regrettable," Nou said. "But the Ministry of Justice

has no power to interfere [with the rulings of the Sihanoukville court]; we can

only advise."

According to Nou, the controversy over the arrest and

prosecution of the Licadho pair prompted visits of high ranking MOJ personnel to

Siha-noukville to search out the facts of the case.

"I went first [to

Sihanouk-ville] to check out the problems [with the case]," Nou said. "Um Bum

Thoeun went second to ask the prosecutor about the trial procedures."


subsequent "advice" provided by the MOJ to the Sihanoukville court apparently

came at the prompting of a letter from a "concerned NGO" and consisted of a

letter urging the court to "find justice for the suspects".

Nou says that

in the future the MOJ welcomes letters of concern from NGOs regarding problems

with the Kingdom's judiciary.

"From now on, if there is a suspected

mistake by judges or prosecutors, NGOs can write a letter to the MOJ," Nou said.

"We will then write a letter [to the judge or prosecutor concerned]."


also defended the government's recent decision to amend rather than abolish the

controversial Article 51 of the Cambodian Legal Code.

Article 51 requires

police to get the permission of relevant government ministries before pursuing

criminal charges against civil servants, and has been castigated by human rights

organizations as a mechanism fostering de facto impunity for government


The new amendment removes the requirement for official

permission to prosecute civil servants, requiring instead "notification"of the

ministry involved 72 hours before charges are pressed.

"The amendment is

similar to abolition," Nou protested. "Once the amendment is passed, when police

want to charge [a civil servant] they only have to inform the [relevant]

ministry, not ask for permission."

Human rights workers remain

unimpressed with the amendment. "The three day notification period gives room

for those facing charges to be tipped off and 'disappear'," one human rights

worker said. "At the very least [the amendment] legitimates a legal

double-standard by treating civil servants differently than ordinary citizens."

As for the reasons why former Khmer Rouge General Sam Bith and Colonel

Chhouk Rin, who have both been charged for the 1994 murder of backpackers David

Wilson, Mark Slater and Jean-Michel Braquet, have yet to be detained, Oum Bun

Thoeun asks for "patience".

"The judge has six months to investigate the

charges [against Bith and Rin] before ordering their arrest," Bun Thoeun said,

adding that the decisions regarding the arrest of the two "are not the

responsibility of the MOJ".



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