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Groups Caution Government on Judicial Reform

Civic groups and opposition officials say the government should not establish a working group to reform the Supreme Council of Magistracy but should instead seek oversight from outside, as officials look to reform the judiciary.

A revamped judiciary is a high priority for many donors, but critics worry the constitution and the balance of powers are not being maintained.

Prime Minister Hun Sen formed the “Assistant Group” in September, to look into Council reform, but 10 of the group members are from the judiciary, and one is from the Ministry of Justice.

The group should “comply with the principal of our constitution, where exist three split branches, executive, legislative and the court,” said Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “If this legally goes through the National Assembly, I think that’s good and I welcome it.”

A subdecree, suggested by Council Minister Sok San and Dith Monty, chief of the Supreme Court and co-chairman of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform, aims to aid the functioning of the Disciplinary Council of the Supreme Council, the only body with the authority to investigate disciplinary measures against judges and prosecutors.

The Assistant Group has the power to receive and monitor complaints against jurists and to report to the Disciplinary Council, and to use law enforcement in its mission.

Prior to the group’s formation, Hun Sen had ordered on Sept. 4 the establishment of a joint ministerial committee with 26 members from the police and judiciary, proposed by the Ministry of Interior, to oversee the work of the courts. But this move met with strong opposition from lawmakers who said it was unconstitutional.

In a Sept. 19 report to Hun Sen, Interior Minister Sar Kheng defended the committee’s work, saying it was not overseeing the court but was focusing on criminal cases and other cases in a database, especially human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Court and police officials have said the courts recently freed suspects that should have been held, including Chea Rotha, a former senior police official accused with accomplices in an acid attack.

“Freeing some of these individuals caused the government unhappiness,” Ou Virak said.

Lawyers who spoke on condition of anonymity said the working group looked better than the joint ministerial working group, but that government institutions already exist to reform the judiciary.

Cheam Yiep, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker, told VOA Khmer the 11-member committee would not interfere with the government, but was meant to assist the judicial body.

However, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann said the working group was unlikely to be effective and would not earn the confidence of the people and investors.

“I believe that because the present court is under the political influence of the ruling party, what they will do is just for looking good,” he said. “But if you want real effectiveness, it’s not difficult at all, as the recommendations from the international community and some developed countries…have been given already.”

Suy Mong Leang, secretary-general for the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform, rejected such criticism, saying the government moves would not affect the independence of the court but was meant to cooperate with government institutions.

The division of powers between three branches of government does not mean the executive branch can’t cooperate with the court, he said, as long as the executive does not interfere with the court’s work trying cases. Punishment would be up to the court, not the executive, he said.

Suon Sareth, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, which comprises 21 prominent rights groups, said that in his view, the government wants to reform the judiciary, but it should only provide technical, legal and financial assistance for an independent institution.

“If we talk about the government policy in general, the government promotes the judicial field in Cambodia,” he said. “The government wants the judicial sector in Cambodia to proceed smoothly and well. This is what we see generally, in a positive sense.”

But the formation of an Assistant Group for the Disciplinary Council, he said, “I think that’s a bit excessive, and I see that it will affect the procession of the judicial field in Cambodia…a little bit in the negative sense, even though I understand that the government has a good willingness to help promote the judicial sector.”

A secretariat for the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which had a similar function for the judicial working group for the Assistant Group, was dissolved by the government several years ago. The government said the body had not functioned well and was a drain on the national budget.