To be eligible for positions as judges in Cambodia’s court system, students say they must pay tens of thousands of dollars in bribes. There is even an expression among the students: “Without $20,000 or $30,000, one shouldn’t dream of becoming a judge.”
In numerous interviews with VOA Khmer, students at the new Royal Academy for Judicial Professions in Phnom Penh described in detail a corrupt practice that critics warn compromises the entire justice system.
Cambodian officials said they would investigate the accusations, and wrongdoings would be prosecuted. But the revelations of judicial bribery come as a hybrid Cambodian tribunal faces mounting allegations of corruption and kickbacks. Half of the tribunal’s judges are Cambodian.
Outside the tribunal, in courts across the co untry, the best posts cost the most money, students said. Phnom Penh and Kandal provincial seats, for example, cost between $70,000 and $150,000. The Phnom Penh court receives two judges and one deputy prosecutors from the academy each year.
Numerous students described the following process. First, a student must ask around for advice, especially from graduates who have already bribed their way into a position and can identify the proper officials to bribe. The amenable government official is then approached and a sum of money is agreed upon. The student prepares the cash, which must be paid up front without a receipt before final exams.
“If it is someone with good knowledge, the amount of $30,000 can be reduced a little bit,” one student told VOA Khmer, requesting anonymity for fear of personal safety.
The fifth class of judicial students graduated the academy May 3. In recent interviews, students said they were warned not to leak information about corruption.
The Royal Academy for Judicial Professions opened in 2003 and has graduated three classes between 55 and 65 students. Five students are appointed by the Council of Ministers, led by cabinet minister Sok An, who is also on the board of the Academy. These five seats are normally reserved for children of senior officials, students said.
Through a spokesman, Sok An declined to comment on this report. The academy’s directory, Tep Darong, could not be reached for comment.
The academy, which is supported by the donor community, has seen a large fall in enrollment, from 2,000 in the beginning to about 200 last year.
Students say this is a reflection of the “hopelessness” of prospective judges who can’t afford the bribery requirements awaiting them on graduation.
Those without money for bribes who remain in the program face a disadvantage at exam time, students said. If a student has paid for it, he will be given a test to learn ahead of the exam. If he doesn’t know an answer, he can leave the question blank and will face easier oral exams than students who haven’t paid.
Bright students who haven’t paid for a position will face oral questioning until they fail, students said. This takes place right under the noses of donors and diplomats, students said.
Judicial reform is one of the main goals of many donors, but students said this was unlikely to succeed in what they see as a systemic problem.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Watana said he was not aware of the process and only dealt with judges once they left the academy. Until the academy was opened, the Justice Ministry was responsible for training judges.
In an interview with VOA Khmer in March, Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government’s anti-corruption office, said there had been a smooth examination of judges so far.
He declined to make a judgment on the students’ accusations, but he warned that legal action would be taken after an investigation. If true, the accusations would mean judges are not being selected for quality, a goal of the government, he said.
He encouraged students to come forward.
“We can protect the sources and whistleblowers,” he said. “When they cooperate with us, it will not be dangerous for them. If we find obvious evidence, we can ask the courts to punish [perpetrators].”
Students say they are too afraid to expose themselves. Exam time at the academy can bring up to $1.5 million in bribes to top officials, making it dangerous to divulge details of the practice.
“How can we report this?” one student said. “It’s dangerous to our life.”
“Until there is a regime change or a credible institution, we cannot disclose this,” another student said. “For the time being, we’d rather not, as we would be killed if we did.”
Lawyers, court and justice officials say the practice is a major obstacle for judicial reform, especially in a system where corruption is rooted so deeply.
“One, the leaders themselves have to be clean,” said Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. “Two, there must be a credible system to control corruption. And three, enforcement of the rules must be strictly held in accordance by individual institutions.”
He noted, however, that no substantial evidence of corruption at the academy has emerged.
Seng Theary, executive director of the Center for Social Development, said a corrupt judiciary impacted rule of law, balance of power and people’s confidence.
“The court system right now is corrupted from the inside, from training, students and procedures,” she told VOA Khmer by phone. “In all the procedures we see, there is corruption in an unbelievable way. Sometimes it’s exhausting to respond to, because it happens up to that level, systemically and culturally. For people who are poor, they don’t have money to pay the bribes and are disappointed, hopeless, and hate so much the process, the court system.”
Seng Theary blamed donors for tolerating judicial corruption.
“Money is given but a corruption law has not yet been passed,” she said.
Yong Kim Eng, president of Citizen Center for Development and Peace, said he was concerned the corruption would weaken the chances for justice to be dispensed by the courts.
“How can they find justice for people if they pay a bribe?” he said of judges. “They will need to get their money back when they become a judge.”
Examples include recent land-grabbing cases, where the rich and powerful act with impunity, while landowners are jailed. As a consequence, confidence in the courts erodes, he said.
“If people do not have confidence with the court, there will be violence and instability,” he said.