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Test Seen for Judicial Reform as Council Meets

Lawyers and other justice officials are pushing for more transparency in the judiciary, as a major meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy is under way.

The Council is a government body constitutionally established to supervise judges and is expected to announce a four-year rotation of judges and prosecutors, including retirees, on Wednesday.

But some critics of the system say it has allowed many jurists to exceed the age of retirement, 60, or that jurists in well-placed positions have not been rotated out.

Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said some jurists are rotated out of a posting only to be put back at a later date. The transfers are designed so that judges or prosecutors do not amass too much power in one court.

“The most important thing is that the Supreme Council of Magistracy must be firm,” he said, “meaning it can’t maintain that this person is good for the party or that person is good for the state.”

“There must be regular transfers,” he said. In the past, different court chiefs have retained their positions, instead of changing court locations, another concern, he said.

Of less concern is the retirement age of judges, because older judges are more experienced and less susceptible to pressure, he said. However, judges beyond retirement age should only be allowed positions of presiding judges, not court chiefs, he said.

Phnom Penh has proven over the years a coveted city among jurists, and justice officials say they expect few shake ups with the Council meets Thursday.

Critics say such discrimination in judicial institutions does little to bolster the confidence of citizens in a system widely seen as biased and corrupt.

“The question is, what do people think of a ‘law’ that is made by the court,” said Kao Supha, a lawyer, “when the court itself says that 60-year-olds must retire, that transfers must take place every four years, but when some people continue to work?”

“If there is no equity, then we see that there is no justice in society,” he said.

The Council, which has nine members and is chaired by King Norodom Sihamoni. Most of its members come from the three levels of court, local, Appeals and Supreme, but critics say it is hard to enforce the retirement policy, for example, when many members of the Council are beyond retirement age.

Justice Ministry officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Lao Monghay, an independent analyst, said people’s faith in the courts remain shaken, especially since court reform has taken many years.

However, Suy Mong Leang, secretary-general of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform, said the government is working toward judicial reform for long-term benefits.