A royal decree has given the government the authority to pick and choose which judges and prosecutors aged 60 years or over it wants to retire, according to a copy of the decree obtained Wednesday.
The decree was signed by King Norodom Sihamoni on Saturday following a request from Prime Minister Hun Sen. The premier’s request comes five months after 31 court officials were unexpectedly knocked off the government payroll for having already reached the age of 60.
According to the decree’s first article, judges and prosecutors who have reached 60 will be forced to retire.
However, the second article states: “Some judges and prosecutors can continue working according the [courts’] needs.”
Government documents obtained in recent months show that the government planned to retire 31 judges and prosecutors as part of the CPP’s deal with Funcinpec to end the yearlong political deadlock that followed the July 2003 election.
While most civil servants are required to retire at the age of 60, judges and prosecutors were exempt from that law.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said Wednesday that when the government decided to exempt judges and prosecutors from mandatory retirement, there were not enough court officials in the country and so it was necessary to exclude them.
“But right now we think we have enough” to let some of them retire, he said, but added that almost half of the 31 slated for retirement would likely stay in their jobs.
One senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity called the decree into question because the second article lets the government manipulate the judiciary by keeping whoever it wants in a job. Ang Vong Vathana said the second article and the decree itself were not of a political nature, or an attempt to hold sway over the judiciary.
“It’s not a political reason,” he said, adding that the decision to keep half the 31 judges and prosecutors was “based on the need of the nation.”
“They will stay for only one year, maybe two years,” he added.
The minister said that over the past few months the government has been assessing which court officials will be required to stay on, and has already compiled a list that includes Supreme Court President Dith Munty and Appeals Court Prosecutor-General Hanrot Raken.
The minister said the decree was necessary to promote judicial reform and bring the rules for court officials in line with those for all other civil servants.
He added that judges and prosecutors who have been working without pay for the past six months will be reimbursed.
Mak Pany, chief prosecutor of Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court, said three of the court’s six officials are listed for retirement so it makes sense to include the second article to ensure the court can still function.
“If three people are gone,” he said, “then the other three people will not be able to do the job properly because there is a lot of work here. They would be stuck.”
The prosecutor, who has been working since May without a salary, said if he was forced to retire it must be done legally.
Uk Touch, chief prosecutor at Kompong Cham Provincial Court, said he makes about $440 per month in salary and stipend for expenses.
He said he was worried whether he would be able to survive on whatever pension the government would pay if he was forced to retire.
“I have been working for the government for 40 years,” he added.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, suggested that affected judges and prosecutors should be allowed to continue working but that they be removed from top positions.
“After they are slated for retirement, if they want to continue the job, then they should be demoted to be common judges or deputy prosecutors,” he said, adding, “even if they are the director of the Supreme Court or Appeals Court.”