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New Book Hammers Judicial System

Post-war Cambodia has failed to produce a strong, independent judiciary, but instead has produced a system where judges move cases around according to bribes and potential earning power, a new book concludes.

The book, “Beyond Democracy in Cambodia: Political Reconstruction in a Post-Conflict,” edited by two professors from Sweden’s Gothenburg University and written by a number of Cambodian and international researchers, launched Friday.

Its authors, Cambodian and international researchers both, found weaknesses in the courts and other sectors of Cambodia’s burgeoning democracy.

Specifically, researcher Un Kheang, who wrote a section of the book on the judicial system and democratization, found a court without the confidence of the people.

“If you ask people whether or not the regime is legitimate, the general answer is, ‘yes,’” Un Kheang said at the book’s launch in Phnom Penh Friday. “But if you ask people if the court is legitimate, if the court is independent, the overwhelming is, ‘no.’”

Major donors to Cambodia, including the US, France, Australia and Japan, have provided millions of dollars in aid to help Cambodia reform its rule of law, but the courts remain heavily criticized by independent monitors and the public.

Joakim Ojendal, a professor of peace and development research at Gothenburg, who edited the book with fellow professor Mona Lilja, told VOA Khmer in an interview Friday that when a judiciary is compromised, it impedes the deepening of democracy and hurts investment.

People lose their confidence in the legal system as well as other political institutions, he said.

Government officials say the book doesn’t accurately portray a system that is under reform.

“One has the right to write a book, but before we start writing, we have to do a deep survey with balance,” said Cheam Yeap, a CPP lawmaker. “If the book mentions all bad things about our management, it will affect what were are trying to seek in foreign investment.”

“Democracy in Cambodia” highlights a number of irregularities in the court system, at a time when the judicial system is under heavy scrutiny for political bias and favoritism.

“Very often judges manipulated those who came into contact with the judiciary to ensure the maximum bribe,” Un Kheang wrote. “On some occasions judges employed delaying tactics in their rulings in order to extract more bribe money from litigants.”

Low salaries made judges and other court officials “susceptible to compromise and bribery,” Un Kheang wrote. “Corrupt and incompetent judges are able to maintain their jobs because of the extensive corruption within the judicial system and the entrenched patron-client network. Meanwhile, appointments and promotions are based on patronage and bribery.”

This “widespread corruption” hurts the poor, who don’t have the money to pursue their cases, he wrote. “It also creates injustice for the poor when they face legal battles with the rich.”

The courts are also open to interference from the executive branch and powerful officials. Judges and prosecutors who go against the status quo can lose their jobs.

“Although there was no threat involved, we judges have to follow, because we know in advance the dimension of their power,” one judge told Un Kheang.

Un Kheang also found that in political cases, judges delivered verdicts that followed the guidelines of the government, led by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

As an example of the court system at work, Kheang Un pointed to the ongoing court battle between opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, who sued the premier for allegedly derogatory remarks in the 2008 election campaign, and Prime Minister Hun Sen, who then countersued.

Mu Sochua’s case has been dropped, but a verdict in Hun Sen’s countersuit is expected Aug. 4.

“With the argument between the prime minister and Mu Sochua, you will see the role of judiciary in the country,” Un Kheang said Friday.

The researcher pointed to a shortage of resources hampering an independent court system.

“The judiciary faces a severe shortage of material resources and human resources, including judges, prosecutors and lawyers,” he wrote. “Lawyers are either fearful or inexperienced in challenging prosecutors or judges during trials. Cambodian lawyers are not competent, and they didn’t present solid evidence.”

Money from the budget was “significantly lower” than that for defense and security, the author found, “and usually arrived at the court late and irregularly.”

The findings in the book met with favorable review from Adhoc rights investigator Chan Saveth.

“This independent study is good and accurate, and I support it,” he said. “The Cambodian government has to accept it and make changes accordingly.”