Cambodia is poised to taken an unprecedented step in judicial reform, with the Ministry of Justice suggesting 43 court officials older than 60 years old be retired, VOA Khmer has learned.
Ang Vong Watana, the Minister of Justice, suggested in a May letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen that the officials be replaced in order to “strengthen good governance, participate in reform of the judicial sector…as well as give opportunities to a new generation of judges and prosecutors.”
The Supreme Council of Magistracy would decide on the retirements, the minister said in his May 27 letter, recently obtained by VOA Khmer, but he asked for Hun Sen “to decide in principle” whether judges aged 60 and above could be considered for retirement.
Within two days, Hun Sen had sent back a hand-written note in the bottom of the letter saying he agreed in principle.
The letter with Hun Sen’s comments, including a list of potential retirees, was copied to Council Minister Sok An, a deputy prime minister who is the head of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform.
The next meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy is set for Wednesday, when the retirements will be debated.
The nine-member Council is presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni and is comprised of eight other members from different courts, all of whom are members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The 43 officials include judges, prosecutors, deputy prosecutors, court chiefs and their deputies. Four of them are members of the Supreme Council of Magistracy itself.
Only four of the officials’ names have been made public in recent days.
Ouk Vithun, prosecutor-general of the Supreme Court, would be replaced by Chea Leang, who is currently the Cambodian prosecutor for the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Hang Roraken, prosecutor-general of the Appeals Court, would be replaced by Ouk Savuth, deputy prosecutor-general of the Appeals Court. Khieu Sameth, court chief of Kandal province, would be replaced by Kong Srim, deputy prosecutor general of the Appeals Court. And Sin Dim, Preah Sihanouk provicial court chief, would be replaced by Yet Chakrya, currently prosecutor of Phnom Penh court.
Rights groups and justice monitors have said the country needs to strengthen its rule of law and establish a transparent judiciary free of corruption, bias and political pressure, as well as provide better training and salaries for judges and other court officials. And while the push to retire aging court officials is positive in a system that has not seen a major overhaul in three decades, observers say it is only a first step.
Lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, an NGO giving free legal services to the poor, told VOA Khmer a good judicial system is necessary, and that one of strong quality and effectiveness would be better than a change of old officials.
“Changing the personnel is not enough, unless we establish first that it’s better for all judges, when they leave, to have a good judicial system, one that is transparent,” he said. “For example, one that controls cases strictly and is capable of preventing corruption, because if only the people change and the system remains the same, it’s not a change.”
Judges currently do not have real independence, he said, “and the issue of independence is not just focused on the involvement of powerful officials, but safety for judges should exist.”
The Supreme Council of Magistracy should be strengthened and penalties for judges should be strictly enforced, he said.
Kek Galabru, president of the rights group Licadho, which monitors law enforcement and the judiciary, said the government’s intentions to reform the judiciary are well known but have so far been unsuccessful.
A move to retire elderly judges and officials is good, but not fully adequate, she said, as the government still must pass a criminal code, an anti-corruption law and a law on judges.
“So reform of the court involves many laws,” she said. “If the government begins replacing judges and prosecutors as they reach a specific age, that’s the first step to start, but they should not stay at just the first step. They need to take further steps forward.”
The courts are not free from politics, just as many public sectors aren’t, she said.
“Everything is politics; in the military there are politics; in the police there are politics; in the military there are politics; in the university there are politics,” she said. “That’s why it’s difficult.”
More than politics, Cambodia’s courts face serious criticism of corruption, nepotism and bias, and international donors have long pushed for their reform.
Chan Saveth, deputy chief investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the courts would see more confidence from citizens if their officials were not seen as under political pressure.
“People do not seem 100 percent confident, because the courts in Cambodia are seen as having much corruption and like to favor those who are powerful,” he said.
Court officials are not seen to help those who are weaker, or to provide justice to both sides, he said. “Even trying to show all the evidence is not enough, but [courts] try to rule on a case to let the side of a powerful person win.”
Meanwhile, the courts rely too much on police reports and other irregularities, he said, pointing out a number of other faults observed by rights organizations and other monitors.
“First, in hearings of criminal cases or misdemeanors, we see that our courts seem to lack integrity in showing evidence to charge or release,” he said. “And then it seems a case is judged based only on the influence or persuasiveness, which is not professional.”
“Second, another point we see in our courts in Cambodia that worries people, is when they file a complaint, they say without money there is no need to go to court,” he said. “On this point, the court should find a means, find a mechanism to make our own people be confidence in coming to the court to receive justice.”
“Third, we see that the court is under pressure from some of the powerful officials, and that’s why such non-independence causes no confidence and leads to impartial law enforcement,” he said.
“Fourth, we see that our court is at a weak stage, because the Cambodian government does not give a package of funding enough to court officials to allow the court the ability to investigate or the ability to reduce the negativity of corruption,” he said. “So this is the foundation point for a government that wants to reform this sector.”
Still, Chan Saveth welcomed the move to retire some judges and prosecutors, which would give an opportunity for new court officials to work. At the same time, the mass retirement of too many judges with a lot of experience could also be a concern, he said.
Nop Sophon is 63 years old, a former deputy chief for Phnom Penh Municipal Court and now a judge at the Ministry of Justice. His name is on the retirement list.
He told VOA Khmer in a phone interview July 21 that he did no object to retirement, but he also said he did not yet know about it.
“And who is to argue, who is to protest, if they let me retire?” he said. “If they look and see that I am still useful, they can keep using me here.”
Ven Yoeun, 61, who has worked as a prosecutor at Svay Rieng Provincial Court since 1979 and whose name is on the retirement list, said he would not regret retiring if that was the need of the government.
“If we still have strength, we regret, as we can extend for two or three more years,” he said. “But for me, my strength has declined because I have been sick for a year, and now I can do the work, but not fully. That’s why they’ve put me for retirement.”
Ven Yoeun said he was proud of the work he had done at the court.
“From the beginning, they selected me to be trained, and I recall that doing this job has helped find justice for society, for the nation, and I have worked here for more than 20 years,” he said. “I admire myself, am proud of myself, that we took the effort and did not make difficulties for society.”
He defended his court against corruption allegations, saying he has a headache when he does good work only to hear bad things on the radio.
“And with broadcasts on VOA and other radio, I’m personally ashamed and also I don’t feel I want to work here anymore, because if you do something they criticize, and if you do something a little bit wrong, they criticize, so that it’s like I myself do not work for the good of the nation and I feel ashamed of myself,” he said.
He appealed to new judges and prosecutors to avoid corruption and other acts that could invite criticism. Young judges and prosecutors will have less experience and less patience, which could create an “imbalance” in adjudicating, he said.
The prosecutor also said he would have no business plans in the future.
“If they let me retire, there is no business, because I was born a peasant who came to work just doing this job here since 1979 and there is no other business to continue to make a living,” he said.
On Samnang, 62, a former deputy court chief for Kampong Speu’s provincial court, who is also on the retirement list, said he had already put his name forward for resignation, in June. He is now a member of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Council, following the May 17 election.
“We had old age and understood that the government need not allow an extension, then we resigned anyway,” he said. “I had one term extension already.”
Younger jurists have “only theory” but no practice when they begin, he said, “but when they try hard, in the future they will be good as well, so it’s not a problem.”
“For me, I think that what the government has prepared is proper and great, in training the judge resources,” he said.
Many of Cambodia’s older judges have limited education, with some only finishing primary or secondary school. However, since 2005, the Royal Academy for Judicial Professions has graduated 173 people, who have been sent to work in various courts across the country.
Education opportunities are much more abundant for legal professionals today, with judges and prosecutors able to earn law degrees, including master’s and doctorate’s.
It remains to be seen whether the Council will vote to retire any court officials, despite the minister’s request. In February 2007, the Council failed to retire a single judge or prosecutor, raising questions about its ability to now retire 43.
In his letter to Hun Sen, Ang Vong Watana stressed that some jurists of retirement age had requested extensions—with some members of the Supreme Council of Magistracy agreeing—in what the minster deemed an obstacle to the work of the government.
The Council would be the body to decide on retirements, he wrote, but he warned that some members had the “intention to control the work of the Supreme Council of Magistracy” and that some were “making decisions for the interests of self, a group or individual, such as transferring jobs and penalties and so on,” under a pretext of independence or a “secret vote.”