The appointments of three senior court judges as advisors to National Assembly President Heng Samrin and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An were labeled unconstitutional by a member of the Constitutional Council on Tuesday who said the positions compromised the independence of the judiciary from the executive branch of government.
Son Soubert, a member of the Constitutional Council, which is the highest legal body in the land, said the Constitution clearly states that the three branches of government—the legislative, executive and judicial—are independent of each other.
“If we are judges and work with the government, it is wrong. The Constitution says there is a separation between the three powers,” Mr Soubert said, adding that judges must resign from their judicial functions before taking another position.
Advertisements appeared on Friday in leading Khmer-language newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea Daily congratulating the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Director Chiv Keng for his recent appointment to the position of advisor to the president of the Council of Ministers’ Council of Jurists, a body chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
The advertisement, which was submitted by judges and prosecutors at the court to congratulate Mr Keng on his new position, featured the court director standing beside the deputy prime minister, and noted that the role was equal in rank to government minister.
Kandal Provincial Court Director Khiev Sameth also confirmed on Tuesday that he and Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court Director Sin Dim, were earlier this year appointed as advisors to Assembly President Mr Samrin. The positions are unpaid, Mr Sameth said.
Mr Soubert said the judicial officers should resign from their posts.
“[Mr Keng] should stop doing any work related with the courts, meaning that he can’t be a judge at the court anymore because he is already with the government. Having court titles, they must have neutrality, and are not biased toward anyone,” he said.
“He can do the work but he must leave his position as a judge,” Mr Soubert said, adding that the same stood for the directors of both the Preah Sihanouk and Kandal courts.
“The courts cannot interfere in the other powers…. This is unconstitutional,” he added.
Contacted by telephone, Mr Keng said that his appointment was not political, and he vowed to only give legal advice in his new position.
“The code of ethics of the judges’ profession states that judges can participate in any activity that relates to the improvement or development of the legal sector in the court system,” Mr Keng said.
Mr Keng also noted that King Norodom Sihamoni had signed a royal decree late last month approving his appointment.
“We judges can contribute opinions in the legal work because we have experience in the code of ethics. Judges can bring good experience in the work of judges and prosecutors, and advise in the reforms of law and court systems,” he continued.
“There is no politics. Is it political to do legal reforms?” asked Mr Keng, who on several occasions warned that he would sue a reporter if misquoted for this story.
“I participate only in the legal work,” Mr Keng continued, adding that his advisory work is also unpaid.
Mr Sameth, the Kandal court director, also said that his appointment as an advisor to Mr Samrin at the Assembly was not illegal.
“Advisors just give ideas, but have no rights to make decisions,” he said.
Judge Sin Dim could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
A person answering Mr Samrin’s phone said that the lawmaker was too busy to speak on Tuesday.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Tuesday that despite there being no law against such appointments, judges are supposed to be independent and should also be perceived as being independent of the executive branch of government.
“The court is an independent power. If judges work at the executive branch, the meaning is that they lose independence,” Mr Sam Oeun said. “They can try working hard to protect their independence, but no matter how hard they try to protect their independence, they would still be criticized,” he said.
“If we want the courts to be independent, they [the government] should not take judges to be involved as political advisors. Being the courts, they should be independent; they cannot even give advice,” he added.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said Tuesday that the separation of powers between the judiciary, the executive and the legislature must be maintained.
“If these three institutions are involved with each other, officials from the court institution work in the government, and government officials work in the court institution,” Yim Sovann said.
“And if the courts fall into this situation, the victims are Khmer citizens,” he added.