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Judicial Reform Drafts Still Need Work, Experts Say

“The Supreme Council of Magistracy has full authority to appoint, demote, promote or fire judges,” said Suon Bunsak, secretary general of Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee.
Cambodia is preparing three long-awaited laws aimed at restoring its widely criticized judicial system. However, two of the three draft laws obtained by VOA Khmer still need a lot more improvement, according to legal experts.

The laws focus on codifying court jurisdiction, laying out guidelines for the duties and discipline of judges and prosecutors, and clarifying the role of the Supreme Council of Magistracy.

Under pressure from civil society groups and the UN, the government has promised deep reform on the judiciary. Prime Minister Hun Sen said the three laws will have to be submitted to the National Assembly by the end of the first half of 2014.

The first law, on structure of the courts, is ready to be sent to the Council of Ministers. The second law, on the role of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, is being reviewed by the Supreme Council itself.

“Yes, another draft law is being reviewed at the Supreme Council of Magistracy after the justice minister submitted it there,” said Sam Pracheameanith, cabinet chief of the Ministry of Justice.

Sam Pracheameanith said it is unlikely the laws are going to be consulted on through a wider audience or civil society. “After inter-ministerial meetings, the law would be sent to the Council of Ministers,” he added.

The Cambodian judiciary has been criticized for corruption and bowing to political pressure. Advocates for the laws say once they are drafted correctly, they can ensure the independence of the judiciary.

The status of the third law, on duties and disciplines of the judges and prosecutors, is still not known. But some critics have already expressed concern over the current draft, saying it will compromise the courts’ independence.

Experts say provisions of the Supreme Council law give too much power to the justice minister to nominate and terminate judges. This would put undue pressure on judges to follow orders from the minister, a political appointee.

The Supreme Council is also comprised of political appointees, two from the National Assembly, two from the Senate and two from the Ministry of Justice.

“The Supreme Council of Magistracy has full authority to appoint, demote, promote or fire judges,” said Suon Bunsak, secretary general of Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee. “Therefore, we need to fully empowered the Supreme Council of Magistracy, not to go through the mechanism of the Ministry of Justice, which is an arm of the government.”

Critics of the law say members of the council should be selected from retired judges and prosecutors, or lawyers, to ensure there are no conflicts of interest.

Sok Sam Oeun, president of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said the laws should include a provision to punish judges and prosecutors for violating its code of conduct.

“There should be clear punishment for those who intervene in court affairs, as well,” said Sok Sam Oeun. “For instance, if someone higher up, even the prime minister, calls up or calls to meet or say something pertaining to get into the work of the judges, there must be some kind of punishment.”

Judges contacted by VOA Khmer anonymously expressed their desire to see civil society be part of the consultations on a code of conduct for judges and prosecutors, to help ensure their service without fear of political pressure.

Late last year a president of the Pailin provincial court was hastily removed after he ran into a conflict with a politician. This has caused concern among law practitioners.
Civil society groups have advocated for a law that prevents judges and prosecutors from becoming members of a political party.

“The reason why we don’t want political parties to get involved in appointing judges is because we want this institution to be independent,” Sok Sam Oeun said. “There should not be any political involvement, because once there is political involvement, they’ll surely forget the law.”

Ith Rady, under secretary of state for the Justice Ministry and one of the leaders of the reform committee for the judicial system, could not be reached for comment. Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana declined to comment.

In his first speech to the new cabinet in September, Prime Minister Hun Sen promised a series of reforms, including within the judiciary, after his Cambodian People’s Party slid in July’s election.

“On the court issue, the minister of justice must take charge in nominating and making recommendation to the king or the Supreme Council of Magistracy for appointment,” Hun Sen said at the time. “This is fast, and the minister should answer to the parliament.”

Meanwhile, supporters of the draft law for the structure of the court says it adds new chambers to handle cases related to administration disputes, commerce, labor, security and juvenile crimes—giving the courts more specialization that they currently have. The new law also provides for the creation of regional appellate courts, though when these would be instituted remains unclear.