Cambodia’s judicial system is troubled by a cycle of corruption, with both sides of the bench accusing the other of perpetuating the practice of bribery, Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) Chairman Om Yentieng said on Thursday at the inauguration of the new bar association president.
The ceremony at Phnom Penh’s Sofitel Phokeethra hotel saw the swearing-in of attorney Suon Visal, who won a landslide victory in October to replace Bun Honn as head of the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC).
Mr. Yentieng used the opportunity to criticize dishonest judiciary officials and lawyers, claiming that 1 percent of more than 1,000 lawyers across the country were corrupt.
“It is very dangerous, because they are lawyers that are not honest with their clients,” Mr. Yentieng said. “It makes their clients damaged by their bias.”
“So don’t be corrupt, don’t join in the corruption and please don’t become brokers instead,” he said. “Defend the case, because this greatly impacts society…and impacts the honor of the rule of state.”
The chairman went on to compare the relationship between judges and lawyers to the age-old “chicken and egg” conundrum. He said judges accused lawyers of forcing them to take bribes, while lawyers accuse judges of demanding them.
“Who is the hen? And who is the egg? We absolutely must solve this problem,” he said.
Within a government regularly ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world, the country’s judiciary is among the least trusted state institutions.
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights attorney, took issue with Mr. Yentieng’s metaphor.
“I think the most important person is the judge. If the judge is clean and hates corruption, then no one [in court] can do anything wrong…. The one who tries to bribe him goes to jail,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ‘chicken and egg.’”
Mr. Sam Oeun said corrupt judges who did not allow honest lawyers to win cases fairly encouraged a culture of corruption.
“If the judge is corrupt, then the lawyer will maybe face a lot of difficulty, and it will be very hard to win the case,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “Maybe no more clients will come to seek his services, and the clients will go to the corrupt, bribing lawyer.”
During his speech, Mr. Yentieng also said his unit had investigated allegations of law students bribing their way through exams, though no offenders had yet been found.
Mr. Visal, the new BAKC president, said he would cooperate with the ACU on any future investigations into corrupt law students or professionals.
“If lawyers commit corruption, we [will] punish them seriously or we can stop them from being lawyers,” he said.
Mr. Visal also expressed his hope that the government would continue to help provide free legal assistance to those who cannot afford it.
“For defending the poor people, I hope that the government will continue to help budget for those poor people,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Hannah Hawkins)