The Ministry of Interior has called for an examination of the Municipal Court’s release and acquittal of 274 prisoners between early 2003 and June 2004, alleging irregularities in the way the courts handled the cases, according to a document obtained Monday.
A letter dated July 15 and addressed to the Minister of Justice from the co-Ministers of Interior said the sentences served were not compatible with the seriousness of the crimes committed, though it did not give details about the crimes.
“The releases and acquittals were made with some irregularities,” the Interior Ministry letter said without elaborating on the specifics of the allegations. The letter said that 162 people had been detained in jail or had served a sentence of less than one year and that 112 had spent more than a year behind bars.
Secretary of State Prum Sokha, who signed the letter, said Monday that the Interior Ministry wants the Justice Ministry to explain observed contradictions, but also declined to elaborate on what specifically seemed out of order.
“We found some irregularities in the process, but we don’t know what happened. So we want clarification,” he said.
The newly-appointed Minister of Justice, Ang Vong Vathana, said he sent the complaint two weeks ago to the Supreme Council of Magistracy, which reviews judicial conduct.
“I hope the Supreme Council of Magistracy will examine the legality of the cases and determine whether or not the judges made appropriate releases and acquittals,” he said Monday. The minister, who also serves on the council, said no date had been set to begin the review.
The majority of those released had been imprisoned for serious crimes, including killings, he added.
“We don’t know whether the court released the prisoners because they have no evidence or whether it was because of their negligence,” he said.
Regardless of the findings, the convicted offenders and acquitted suspects cannot be arrested again according to Cambodian law, Ang Vong Vathana said.
Observers were ambivalent Monday about the Interior Ministry’s critique of the judicial system, which is widely considered as prone to corruption and susceptible to political interference.
“It shows, on one hand, that the Ministry of Interior is interfering with judicial affairs, but on the other hand, it shows that the Ministry of Interior is monitoring the processes of the courts, which is a positive trend,” said Chan Saveth, spokesman for the human rights NGO Adhoc.
It’s not the first time the courts have been criticized for releasing prisoners. In December 1999, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the re-arrest of 66 released criminals, alleging that the suspects had bribed judges for their release. Hun Sen said they would be questioned in order to identify which judges were corrupt.
While the intent to crack down on judicial corruption was praised, the arrest order was criticized for violating the rights of those released and breaching the independence of the judicial system.