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.
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.
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
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".