The Cambodian Bar Association swore in Prime Minister Hun Sen and three other senior CPP government officials Wednesday, despite some questionable qualifications.
Donning black robes and pleated white ties, Hun Sen, Deputy Prime Ministers Sar Kheng and Sok An, and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha spoke the oath in unison inside a packed Appeals Court, and became the newest member of the bar.
Today, Hun Sen is scheduled to inaugurate the bar’s new office, donated by the CPP-dominated Council of Ministers.
Article 31 of the Law on the Bar states that its members must possess a Bachelor of Law degree or a law degree declared equivalent.
Ky Tech, president of the Bar Association, said after the ceremony that the Ministry of Education had inspected and evaluated the educational credentials, many honorary, of their four latest members and deemed them equivalent to real law degrees, an assessment which some said is equivalent to stamping tin as gold.
Though schools give honorary degrees to benefactors and notable persons, they do not indicate that the recipient has attained that level of education.
Hun Sen has received a number of honorary degrees from little-known foreign institutions, despite not having completed formal high school.
Hun Sen and Deputy Prime Minister Sok An both have honorary law doctorates from Ohio Wesleyan College, an obscure US institution that in 1998 revoked an honorary degree it had conferred on business tycoon and CPP sponsor Teng Bunma.
The college’s trustees took back the award after learning the US had denied Teng Bunma a visa because of allegations related to drug trafficking, the Associated Press reported at the time.
According to several Bar Association insiders, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng’s application noted his membership in the Russian Academy of Science, another honorary conferral, and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha presented a master’s degree in business, which he earned from a Singaporean university.
Say Bory, the bar association’s first president and former member of the Constitutional Council, said last week that he welcomed Cambodian leaders’ involvement in the bar, but also that he disapproved of granting membership to those who are not qualified.
“An honorary certificate does not count in the profession of lawyers,” he said. “The certificate must be gotten by studying at a school. It does not count to have an honorary certificate.”
A lawyer belonging to the
19-member Bar Council, the guild’s governing body, said on condition of anonymity that the CPP officials were approved for membership in an irregular Council meeting on July 16.
Five other applicants for membership had been on the meeting’s agenda, with no mention of the powerful officials, but the CPP applicants were considered instead, the lawyer recalled.
He said the 14 Council members present, mostly CPP loyalists, voted 13 to 1 for Hun Sen and Sar Kheng each. They voted 12 to 2 for Sok An and 9 to 5 for Prum Sokha.
The applicants’ degrees and their experience as statesmen were declared sufficient criteria for membership, the lawyer added.
He also said that the applicants’ credentials were not copied and distributed, as is the Bar Council’s custom.
Then the Council voted 11 to 3 for the politicians to be exempt from the training and internship that usually follow a new member’s swearing-in ceremony.
The Council member said the exemptions—which Article 32 of the Bar Law allows for those with law doctorates, or with Bachelor of Law degrees and more than two years experience, or with membership in another country’s bar association—were decided upon because the four officials do not intend to practice law.
“They become lawyers not for business, but for show,” he said.
Leaving the Appeals Court on Wednesday, Hun Sen told reporters that he hopes to practice law after he retires from politics, because his grandmother was a legal advocate during the 1950s and 1960s.
He said that out of his grandmother’s eight children, about 60 grandchildren and more than 100 great-grandchildren, “none of them have practiced the profession of lawyer or advocate to replace that priceless heritage. So I thought I should take this profession after I finish my political job.”
More importantly, the premier added, Cambodia needs more lawyers in order to reform its legal system and he wants to support reform.
But some nervous lawyers’ see the bar being co-opted.
Over the past year, the Bar Association has enjoyed increasing support from the Council of Ministers.
One well-known lawyer confirmed that, aside from the new office building, the Council of Ministers donated approximately $50,000 to the bar in the past year. Personal donations to the bar from ranking CPP officials have also increased, he said.
Another bar insider lamented the politicization of the organization, which he blamed on all three major political parties, but mostly the CPP.
He recalled how, after its inception in 1995, the bar stood alongside other supposedly neutral organizations, such as local human rights groups, calling for an international and independent Khmer Rouge tribunal.
After becoming better funded, however, the bar has grown quiet, he said.
But while some lawyers and members of civil society fret that the bar is being hijacked, the previously mentioned well-known lawyer said he could not see how joining the bar could further the influence of men already so powerful.
Harassment and intimidation are the preferred forms of influence over the legal system, he said.
And as indicated by the number of unnamed sources in this article, some lawyers are afraid to publicly criticize their newest colleagues.