The government is pursuing a set of goals to improve the protection of personal rights and freedoms and to modernize its justice system, but there is lingering mistrust among the public the courts can actually deliver fair results.
Officials say they are trying to update the country’s legal framework, strengthen judicial services, and provide alternative dispute resolution.
“Our activities and strategies are very broad,” Suy Mong Leang, secretary-general of the General Secretariat for the Council of Legal and Judicial Reform, told VOA Khmer by phone. “This means we cannot see the results immediately. Nowadays, we try our best to do as much as we can, based on what we have planned. There is a lot. We have 97 activities in total, so we have to do this within short and long terms. Until now we have not done 100 percent.”
Despite these efforts, the courts are seen as a tool used by the rich and powerful against the poor and weak. This is obvious in many land disputes—contentious issues in Cambodia that are often resolved in courts that seem to favor those with money and influence.
“Today, the justice system is one of injustice,” Yim Sovann, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, told VOA Khmer. “”We have noticed that if it is so, it will be a major impediment in our society.”
Court officials must operate in a corrupt system created by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, he said; otherwise they become victims themselves.
Even the prime minister, Hun Sen, recently looked to the courts to resolve an essentially political dispute with SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua. Each side accused to other of defamation. Mu Sochua claimed remarks made by the premier during the 2008 national election campaign were degrading; Hun Sen said a press conference in which she announced her case was defaming.
While some say the settling of such difference through lawsuits in the court, instead of violence in the streets, is a positive step, others disagree.
“Opposition parties don’t trust the courts to find justice for them, but they have no choice,” said Kem Sokha, president of the minority opposition, the Human Rights Party. “If someone brings them to court they have to go, in order to show to the public that we use this court. But we want the court to reconsider and correct itself.”
Court judges and prosecutors at every level are members of the ruling party, he said, and this interferes with their work, especially in high-profile cases.
However, Mong Mony Chakriya, a Supreme Court judge who worked for years in Phnom Penh Municipal Court, refuted the allegation.
“From my experience, since I began my work, I never received any political pressure,” he said. “I have never received anything.”
The Supreme Council of Magistracy has a role to maintain independence in the courts and to issue internal regulations for judges. The nine-member council is headed by the king, but seven other members are in the CPP.
Opposition members are skeptical of the council’s ability to punish judges who are not impartial.
Ouk Vithun, a member of the council and former Minister of Justice, said the council does not function based on political quotas, as other institutions do, but focuses on technical work.
“So far, close to 200 judges have been disciplined,” he said. “We have disciplined many judges. We have sacked some. Some have been removed, and some were moved to other places. We have done this for many years.”