Despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s declaration of an “iron fist” clamp down on court corruption, two Phnom Penh Municipal Court judges, reportedly suspended earlier this month amid allegations that court officials were taking bribes, remain on the job.
“I do my work normally,” Judge Kong Sarith said Wednesday. “I have not seen a letter saying I am suspended.”
Judge Ham Mengse said he, too, received no notice of suspension.
“I work normally,” Ham Mengse said by telephone Wednesday.
Kong Sarith and Ham Mengse, along with Municipal Court deputy prosecutors Khut Sopheang and Siem Sok Aun, were named by municipal police at a March 2 news conference for their alleged involvement in the illegal release of suspected criminals.
In a speech the following day, Hun Sen vowed to re-arrest hundreds of suspected criminals who had bribed their way out of jail and to arrest corrupt judges and prosecutors.
“We have to take action starting today which will allow us to arrest judges and prosecutors,” the prime minister said at the time. He warned that he would use an “iron fist” in the process.
Hun Sen adviser Om Yentieng said on March 4 that the Ministry of Justice suspended Siem Sok Aun and Khut Sopheang, while the Supreme Council of Magistracy suspended Kong Sarith and Ham Mengse.
Although the two deputy prosecutors confirmed they have been suspended, both judges said Wednesday they never received any indication they would receive the same fate from the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
Ham Mengse said he has been writing a report, defending his decisions in 200 cases he presided over. But, he said, the only news he received of his suspension was from unconfirmed news reports.
Om Yentieng denied Wednesday that he named any specific judges or prosecutors who had been suspended. But he admitted the government did not fully succeed in the crackdown on corruption.
“The government only has the right to request judicial reform and cannot control the decisions of the Supreme Council of Magistracy,” he said.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said he suspended the two deputy prosecutors while the Supreme Council of Magistracy investigates the allegations against them and the judges. He said only the Council can suspend the judges, but he did not say why it had not done so.
Ang Vong Vathana said the ministry was monitoring the activities of the two judges while the investigation is conducted.
Lawyers and NGO representatives said they were not surprised the two judges had not been suspended following Hun Sen’s “iron fist” speech.
“It’s as we suspected all along,” said Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development. “These kinds of abrupt decisions cannot come to anything.”
However, he said, since Hun Sen’s speech, court officials have been conducting themselves differently. Not only have they become more serious, Lao Mong Hay said, they have been less haphazard about handing down sentences, now giving similar punishments for various crimes.
“We felt that maybe the judges are doing that out of fear,” he said. “Or maybe it’s passive resistance. They are saying ‘You want it, here it is.’”
Lawyer Kao Soupha said Hun Sen’s “iron fist” approach has left prosecutors and judges unable to perform their duties. Many of them, he said, are scared to release suspects for fear they will be held responsible.
He encouraged court officials to stand up for themselves, remain independent and protect the rights of those who have been charged.
“I appeal to the prosecutors and judges to enforce themselves,” he said. “If you have the right to release a suspect, do it.”
A court official who spoke on condition of anonymity, echoed Kao Soupha’s comments.
“Prosecutors and judges should make a petition with their thumbprints saying what the government is doing is violating us too much,” he said.