When Justice Minister Chem Snguon went to Paris for medical treatment last month, it wasn’t his secretary of state who took over for him.
Instead, a top adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen filled the role. Sok An, the co-minister of the Council of Ministers and an influential CPP member, was appointed as acting Justice Minister, signing official documents and convening a meeting of the independent judicial body, the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
His appointment bypassed the usual procedures of government, legal observers say, and his action to convene the Supreme Council raises questions about the link between the judiciary and the government.
“This is unconstitutional. There is a clear chain of command in place,” said one legal observer. “He’s from the Council of Ministers, so it’s absurd, way beyond the pale.”
Secretary of State for Justice Ouk Vithun normally would have filled in for the ailing Chem Snguon. But the Funcinpec member fled the country after last year’s factional fighting, and has refused to return to his post.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith explained the move as common procedure when both the minister and the secretary of state are absent.
“The two prime ministers appoint someone,” he said. “It happens every month. It’s just for routine decisions. “
In March, the two prime ministers appointed Lieutenant General Ea Chuor Kimmeng, a senior defense adviser, as acting co-minister of defense. He replaced Tea Chamrath, the Funcinpec general who has temporarily taken a seat on the National Election Committee.
In his role as acting Minister of Justice, Sok An this month convened a meeting of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, an independent judicial body charged with ensuring the independence of the judiciary by promoting, hiring and firing judges and prosecutors. The Supreme Council has met only once before, last December.
When one of Sok An’s advisers was asked why the minister was convening the meeting, the adviser replied, “No, he couldn’t have done that because that’s an independent institution and it should organize itself.”
Sok An, however, confirmed his involvement.
“The Ministry of Justice has prepared this meeting because [the Supreme Council] needs help to prepare for it to meet,” he explained Saturday.
Supreme Council of Magistracy members now are scheduled to vote Wednesday for their three representatives on the Constitutional Council, the body charged with ruling on election disputes and seen by the international community as vital to free and fair elections. The King and the National Assembly have already made their appointments to the body.
Meanwhile, legal observers and human rights workers say the Supreme Council’s scheduled vote is technically flawed, a cosmetic exercise to please foreign donors and elect three CPP supporters to a panel that could ultimately rule on the outcome of the election.
“It is supposed to be a legally constituted and non-partisan body, but the Constitutional Council that has been created is a joke and cannot be taken seriously by anyone inside or outside Cambodia,” one rights worker commented. “It will have no credibility in determining election disputes when it is so clearly a tool of the CPP.”
The deadline for applications closed Friday. Seven candidates had put their name forward for the three posts decided by the Supreme Council, Undersecretary of State for Justice Li Vouch Leang confirmed Sunday.
All seven are believed to be members of the CPP. They are: Ung Thy, a CPP adviser to the National Assembly; Prak Sok, secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Works; Thor Peng Leath, the former governor of the National Bank; Heng Chi, the former president of the Appeals Court; Kong Pirun, the former president of the Royal School of Administration; Henrot Raken, the general prosecutor of the Appeals Court; and Chan Sok, president of the Supreme Court.
The rights worker described the first three candidates as “heavyweights” within the CPP.
The final two are also members of the Supreme Council of Magistracy. On Wednesday, they will have to decide whether to vote themselves onto the Constitutional Council. If appointed, they will have to give up their posts on the Supreme Council.
Nothing in the law prevents them from exercising this privilege, but one legal expert suggested the two candidates should acknowledge their self-interest.
“They cannot participate in a vote on themselves or on the other candidates,” she said. “That’s unethical.”
The Supreme Council of Magistracy has nine members. For the vote to be legally acceptable, at least seven members must be present, according to the law. If Chan Sok and Henrot Raken abstained, the meeting would still reach quorum, the lawyer made clear.
But, she added, the president of the Supreme Council—normally the King, but this time Chea Sim, the National Assembly president—must abstain from voting. And another seat on the Supreme Council remains empty, Li Vouch Leang confirmed Saturday, as the post of president of the Appeals Court is yet to be filled.
Another legal observer questioned the legality of another appointee to the Supreme Council. Ty Neng, the head of criminal and civil affairs at the Ministry of Justice, is occupying a seat reserved for a judge.
Li Vouch Leang said Ty Neng is a magistrate who has been temporarily transferred to the ministry.
The observer commented that this is contrary to the Constitution, which states that the judiciary is an independent branch of the state. “This is a clear conflict of interest,” he noted. “He shouldn’t be there.”
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara and Pin Sisovann)