As a fifth class of judiciary students were preparing to begin classes at a government academy this year, Phnom Penh Municipal Court documents show that a $55,000 bribery suit between a prospective student and one near-graduate was nearly fought.
According to the official complaint, obtained by VOA Khmer on the condition that names not be used, the plaintiff, whose “younger sibling” hoped to enter the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions, paid $35,000 to a Class Three student, having been promised the money would earn the sibling a seat in the prestigious school.
The case was settled out of court this month, according to a Phnom Penh court source, with the academy student agreeing to return $35,000 to the plaintiff.
The filing of such a complaint underscores at least a perceived understanding that it takes money to get a seat at the donor-supported school. The complaint also adds weight to complaints by students who are already in the school and who say they must pay bribes in order to get judge’s seats across the judicial system.
The defendant who allegedly took the money was a student in Class 3 of the academy who has finished school and is awaiting professional assignment in Cambodia’s court system, the court source said. Two students at the academy contacted by VOA Khmer also said the defendant was a Class 3 student.
“Before the exam, the school called [the defendant] to meet all the students and asked whether they should allow him to take his exams or not, as he was implicated in a court case on taking someone’s money to ‘run business’ for a judicial student seat,” the court source told VOA Khmer, on condition of anonymity. “At that time, students agreed then that he could take the exam; otherwise, he would have already lost his career.”
Judicial students contacted by VOA Khmer said the case had been discussed at the academy.
The plaintiff, a 30-year-old woman from Phnom Penh, claims in the complaint she paid the former student to secure a position for her “younger sibling” to enter Class Five of the academy.
After her family member did not gain admittance, the plaintiff filed suit to have the $35,000 returned and for $20,000 in further compensation, according to the court document, registered as No. 566.
The defendant, the woman wrote the court prosecutor, “has used tricks to cheat and took money from me, $35,000…by lying that he took it to use in the liaison work so that my younger sibling [redacted] be admitted as a Class Five student judge. But when the examination day arrived, surprisingly, [redacted] was not on the list of the examination, and [defendant] just disappeared.”
The court source told VOA Khmer the defendant had apparently taken the money but instead of bribing officials to secure admittance to the academy had spent it on personal expenses.
“When he spent all of it out of pocket, that money did not ‘run business,’” the source said. “The [plaintiff] was angry and filed a lawsuit to the court, as he did not even pay back the money taken.”
The two sides reconciled out of court, the source said.
The defendant and plaintiff could not be reached for comment Wednesday as phone numbers were not available to VOA Khmer.
Koet Sekano, secretary-general of the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions, reached by phone Wednesday, said he had no time to speak with a VOA Khmer reporter.
Chea Meth, leader of Class Three, which recently graduated, told VOA Khmer on Wednesday that the court case was a “personal” matter of another student.
“For me, I do not know if there have been any implications with money or whatever,” he said.
Chea Meth, and fellow Class Three graduates Yet Molin and Hok Pov, also reached by phone Wednesday, denied paying money ensure spots in the academy and said they had no knowledge of the bribery case.
Class Five students began their two-year program May 4.
The court complaint is further evidence of a perception of corruption and bribery within the ranks of those who wish to join Cambodia’s judicial profession, which has come under fire by academy students in recent weeks, even as the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal struggles with allegations that some Cambodian staff members pay kickbacks for their positions.
Some at the academy expect to pay at least $20,000 to be seated as judges or other court officials in the judicial system, according to VOA Khmer interviews over the past three months with three current students and one graduate of the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions, a Phnom Penh court official, a Ministry of Justice official and others.
“It’s shameful for me to do this, but there is no choice,” said one student, who explained how he paid thousands of dollars to ensure he’d pass his entrance exam and gain a seat in the academy. “I joined this career because I saw that the salary of the judge was better than the government, and in the process of [national] reform, this is a better paying job than others.”
Another current student at the academy said to become a judge was to have a chance to reform the country, even if money was paid to secure the opportunity.
“We go not to do a bad thing, but to help promote good action in the court,” this student said.
Former and current students described having to pay older classmates money to use as brokerage for judge’s positions in the court system after graduation, including as much as $150,000 to be a judge in Phnom Penh. Money is paid cash up front.
The government has denied the allegations, and a leading government lawyer, Heng Vong Bunchat, on Wednesday refused to comment further to VOA Khmer.
“I’m not a person clarifying things for you,” said Heng Vong Bunchat when reached by phone. “You are [working for] a radio that… has no responsibility. You’re so mighty. You [are working for] a radio of a superpower. You must seriously think [of the consequences]. Once one is influential, he has to seriously think [of the consequences]. You just flip here and there [referring to broadcasting] and then make a phone call. I [derogative] never see your face and now come here to show your face.”
For a full transcript of the phone interview with Heng Vong Bunchat, click here.