Looking in on Phnom Penh’s Municipal Court can be like watching price haggling at Phsar Thmei, with a trial’s outcome often being relinquished to the highest bidder, according to interviews and a recent visit by a Cambodia Daily reporter.
And although negotiations about price may be slightly muffled, discussions on how much money should be paid and to which officials generally flow freely on the municipal court’s grounds.
“I was very disappointed when I first stepped into the court compound because all I heard was money, money, money,” said Sruoch Ros, a Chamkarmon district resident who came to court recently to get back money allegedly lent to a neighbor. Sruoch Ros said that after being interviewed by the court clerk, he was asked how much Sruoch Ros could pay if they helped him win the case.
“At the beginning, I thought it was very strange to hear this,” Sruoch Ros said. “But later I was told by my neighbors that I had no other choice.”
It seems that almost anyone with a few spare hours to loiter around the court can witness the corrupt dealings. Accounts of corruption are rife when talking to plaintiffs, defendants and court officials.
Even Lay Sokhom, a policeman for the Interior Ministry, said he had to give money before his case would be tried. If he didn’t give officials the money, he said the case would be delayed.
“This is no secret,” Lay Sokhom said. “There is no need to hide it because everyone in our society does it.”
The government made a gesture at judicial reform in December when the Supreme Council of Magistracy removed the city court’s top two officials, Oum Sarith and Kann Chhoeun. However, little has changed at the court since the shuffle, interviews revealed, and little other legal reform has taken place.
Two months ago, more than 20 defendants waited in the courtroom to stand trial for gambling in the Tuol Kouk district of the city. A Cambodia Daily reporter stood nearby and listened to municipal judges, prosecutors and clerks outside, as they argued about the amount of money the defendants should be charged in bribes.
Ya Sakhorn, a judge at the court, blames acts of corruption on insufficient salaries, saying the government pays him $20 a month.
“For me, I never demand or ask money from the people to help them win the case,” Ya Sakhorn said. “But if they give me money, I will take it. Such acceptance is not corrupt.”
Miseducation about corruption is part of the problem. Some say that corruption is so entrenched in the court’s history that many involved don’t always see it as criminal.
Yeang Soriya, who allegedly went to court to get back $30,000 that she lent to a businessman, said that she’s lost a total of $13,000 from bribes to judges since 1996. During those years she’s had to appear in municipal court, supreme court, and the appellate court, and pay officials every step of the way.
“I had to go to Phnom Penh Municipal Court many times,” Yeang Soriya said. “So I became experienced in dealing with them.”
“I knew what I would have to do to win,” she said. “It is a habit in the court that has been going on for a long time, so I wasn’t surprised to hear them asking me for money outside.”
She said that in 1997 she finally won, but only walked away with a fraction of what she was allegedly owed. When she subtracted the money she won from the money she used bribing officials, Yeang Soriya says she actually lost money.
“If I did not give them the money, my case would sit in a drawer,” Yeang Soriya said. “I wanted the case to be quicker and I wanted to win, so I gave them the money.”
Thun Saray, director of Adhoc, a local human rights group, said court officials have no fear of retribution, so they openly negotiate bribes in public.
“Corruption is dangerous,” Thun Saray said. “It starts small, as a way to survive, but then after they see they can get away with it and start making money, it gets worse and worse.”
Justice Secretary of State Suy Nou, acknowledges there is a problem with corruption in the courts, but said the Justice Ministry has insufficient money to combat the problem.
“We have made five efforts at reform in order to educate workers about corruption and make their living conditions better,” said Suy Nou. “But we still need more assistance from donors.”
This typical justification was reiterated by one clerk at the municipal court, who asked not to be named. He pointed to a need to feed his family as his reason for participating in the corrupt system.
“Staying away from corruption could not feed my children and wife,” the court clerk said. “People don’t care about dignity when they don’t have enough for their family. We don’t care about staying away from corruption when we have to care for our stomachs.”