Rampant corruption has undermined the integrity of the judicial system and law enforcement agencies, making them the state’s weakest institutions, according to a wide-ranging report released Tuesday by Transparency International (TI).
Two years in the making, the 233-page report looks beyond Cambodia’s dismal ranking in TI’s last annual corruption perceptions index—160 out of 177 countries—and finds a nation failing to uphold the rule of law or ensure a decent quality of life for its citizens.
The report, “Corruption and Cambodia’s Governance System: The Need for Reform,” details the root causes of endemic graft within the judiciary, police force and other state institutions based on what it calls a “national integrity system assessment.”
The courts are insufficiently funded and resourced, leading to inadequate salaries for court officials, the report says. The lack of a clear separation between the courts and executive branch has led to deep politicization of the judicial system, it adds, and three laws recently passed with the intention of strengthening the judiciary have failed to fix the problem.
Impunity is also rife, according to the report, a claim illustrated this week by the Takeo Provincial Court, which dropped a murder investigation against a former commune police chief after he paid off the family of the victim, a 29-year-old karaoke parlor worker.
“Bribe-seeking and offering undermines the professionalism and accountability of these government institutions,” the report says. “It leads to situations where those that can afford to pay more receive preferential treatment, inequality is exacerbated, and impunity reigns.”
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen blamed corruption on the private sector, arguing that officials could not take bribes if private firms were not paying them. However, the report says that the centralization of power within a corrupt network of public and private power-brokers is largely to blame for the ineffectiveness of state institutions.
“High-level business and gov- ernment operate within a tightly woven mutually beneficial nexus,” it says. “Existing laws are not equally applied or effectively upheld. This cuts across all institutions, contributing to the weakness of the entire integrity system.”
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who spent a week behind bars earlier this year after being charged with insurrection for her alleged role in a violent protest near Freedom Park on July 15, said during a panel discussion at the launch of the report that she had seen the inside of a judicial system built on bribery.
“If I am a person with money, I can use that to communicate with someone. Before a prosecutor, if I have money, I can get a release. You can have your charges dropped if you have money,” she told fellow panelists and members of the media gathered at Phnom Penh’s Raffles Hotel.
The TI report ranked 13 key state institutions, or “pillars,” using a scoring system from zero, “very weak” to 100, “very strong.” The judiciary scored the lowest, with a score of 16, followed by law enforcement agencies, with a score of 22. Civil society got the highest rating, with a score of 48, followed by political parties, which scored 42.
While the loudest calls for reform in the report target the judiciary, TI also urges the government to amend the Anti-Corruption Law and pass legislation that would ensure access to information.
One of the most alarming aspects of the Anti-Corruption Law, according to TI, is an article that enables whistleblowers to face imprisonment for up to six months if the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) fails to find sufficient evidence to support their claims of corruption.
“Remove the provision on jailing whistleblowers,” Preap Kol, TI’s executive director, said at yesterday’s event. “Asset declarations should be made public and accessed by parliamentarians.”
The practice of asking officials to declare their assets in documents that are sealed in an en- velope is purely ceremonial and lacks transparency, the report says. And while the ACU received an average score of 34, it got a ze- ro on independence.
“The current chairperson is well-known to be a senior advisor to the prime minister,” the report says. “Moreover, senior officials…including the ACU chairperson are Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) members.”
Mr. Kol said the appointment of the ACU’s chairman and deputies “should be selected in an open recruitment process…because without that, it is difficult to safeguard the objectivity of the ACU’s activities.”
When asked about these concerns, ACU Chairman Om Yentieng hit back, accusing Mr. Kol of using “tricks to try and topple” him and TI in general of trying to “control” him.
“They cannot play football with us and then also act as a referee to blow a whistle and fine us,” he said when asked about the report at a separate event on how the ACU works with the private sector.
“It does not mean that they eat rice on a plate while we eat rice on a coconut shell,” he said, referring to what he saw as condescension in the report toward government officials charged with fighting corruption.
Mr. Yentieng said his age, experience and education made him perfectly qualified to lead the ACU and that the law has no provisions preventing his association with a political party.
As for the secret declaration of officials’ assets, Mr. Yentieng said there was no need to amend the law. Calls for the removal of the article on jailing whistleblowers will also go nowhere, he said.
“Brother and sisters and uncles, if you have any new clues, do not hesitate to inform us,” he said.
“But there have been some cases where they have used tricks to poison names endlessly even when we have told them five times,” he added. “The article states clearly that you can’t make the ACU investigate without any result.”
Wan Hea-Lee, country representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the audience at Raffles that the government should do some soul-searching in the wake of the report.
“Not every country ranks among the 20 most corrupt in the world,” she said. “That is a situation that should be sending out alarm signals. Every country has challenges in the judiciary and developing countries all the more so, but not every developing country invests so little in the judiciary.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
© 2014, Lauren Crothers. All rights reserved.