‘Iron Fist’ Court Reform Seizes One of Its Own

Nearly five months ago, Bat­tambang Provincial Court Chief Prosecutor Yam Yet received a letter from Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana giving him the job of bringing charges against four Phnom Penh Municipal Court officials.

The judges and deputy prosecutors had been accused by the government of taking bribes from se­ven suspected armed robbers who they then released.

“Please, Mr Prosecutor, accept the assurance of my high consideration,” the justice minister finished his letter.

Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly vowed March 3 to hold court officials responsible. Armed with that letter, Yam Yet became the pointman for the prime minister’s so-called “iron fist” crackdown on corruption within the judiciary. That was until last week, when that very same iron fist apparently took aim again—this time at Yam Yet.

On April 21, Yam Yet sent a letter to the municipal court saying a robbery suspect re-arrested on Hun Sen’s order was being held illegally at Phnom Penh police headquarters.

Yam Yet noted that the suspect had been held at the police headquarters instead of prison since March 2 and didn’t have legal representation—both of which were violations of the law.

That letter came back to haunt Yam Yet this week when the Su­preme Council of Magistracy suspended him without his knowledge.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Va­thana confirmed Wednesday the decision to suspend Yam Yet was based upon that letter.

“He did not follow the proper procedure,” the minister said. “But [the suspension] is just temporary, and we are still investigating.”

Yam Yet said Thursday that he didn’t know what he had done wrong, and still had not received a letter informing him of his suspension.

“They cannot just suspend me for that one decision. My decision is not wrong,” he said.

Over the past few months, the iron fist campaign has netted several court officials, two of whom have lost their jobs, but has also drawn its fair share of criticism.

UN human rights envoy to Cam­­­­bodia Peter Leuprecht issued a statement Tuesday expressing re­newed concern at the pressure being brought to bear on the judiciary and the diminishing independence of the courts.

“This policy has resulted in sanctions against several court officials without proper disciplinary procedures, and has further undermined the independence of the courts,” his statement read.

The UN envoy is not the first to question the government’s actions against the judiciary, and this is not the first time the government has taken on the judiciary and suspended court officials for taking bribes.

On Dec 3, 1999, Hun Sen an­nounced, in a directive broadcast on television and radio, that he had ordered authorities to re-arrest 66 people following allegations from then-Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara that municipal court officials had taken bribes in exchange for granting their freedom.

Hun Sen also vowed to punish those responsible. Oum Sarith, di­rector of the municipal court, and Chief Prosecutor Kann Chhoeun were later suspended then fired by the Supreme Council of Magis­tracy—the body that oversees the conduct of judges and prosecutors.

Some believed the government was finally tackling problems within the judiciary and a debate en­sued over the need for better-paid court officials to stem the need to take bribes. Others said the government had acted only to gain more control over the courts.

Dith Munty, Supreme Council of Magistracy member and Su­preme Court director, said on Jan 24, 2000, that the council had wanted to take action against misbehaving court officials, but that the time wasn’t right.

“Now, [the council] is powerful,” he said at the time.

But how powerful remains the question. Both Oum Sarith and Kann Chhoeun were later given jobs back in government.

On March 3 of this year, history repeated itself when Hun Sen told participants of the annual National Health Congress that he had or­dered the re-arrest of seven arm­ed robbers and accused members of the judiciary of releasing the robbers.

“There are three legs on which the cooking pot rests: The legislative, the executive and the judicial,” Hun Sen said. “One of these legs is broken. We will have to hang the pot up and we will use the iron fist, Hun Sen’s iron fist, to do it.”

Justice Minister Ang Vong Va­thana quickly sent a letter to Dith Munty asking for documents related to cases Hun Sen had spoken of. He also suspended municipal court deputy prosecutors Siem Sok Aun and Khut Sopheang for two of the cases Hun Sen referred to in his speech—a November 2004 release of two armed robbery suspects.

The minister wrote to Hun Sen notifying him of the suspensions and saying the ministry will work “step by step against those in­volv­ed.”

Siem Sok Aun and Khut So­pheang had originally been ac­cused in early February, in a letter from the co-Interior Ministers Sar Kheng and Prince Norodom Sir­ivudh, of taking bribes along with mu­nicipal court judges Ham Meng­se and Kong Sarith to re­lease seven suspected armed robbers.

On March 29, Yam Yet received a letter from Ang Vong Vathana asking him to charge the four officials. Yam Yet then set to work investigating the cases.

It was also announced that mu­nicipal court Chief Prosecutor Ouk Savouth was being investigated as he was the immediate superior to the two deputy prosecutors while Judge Hing Thirith was also suspended, though no official reason was given.

Hing Thirith had been transferred that month from the municipal court to the Stung Treng Prov­in­cial Court after saying there was­ not enough evidence to try two men charged with killing union lead­er Chea Vichea.

As the so-called “iron first” investigation gained steam, some court officials said they were working in fear and alleged the government was trying to intimidate them. Others said judges were handing out tougher sentences for fear they would be seen to be going soft on suspects and hence suspected of taking bribes.

On July 11, the Supreme Coun­cil of Magistracy met and, for the first time, King Norodom Siha­mo­ni chaired the meeting in his new role.

That day, the council decided to fire Judge Kong Sarith and Deputy Prosecutor Siem Sok Aun. Judges Ham Mengse and Hing Thirith and Deputy Prosecutor Khut So­ph­eang were suspended one year while Chief Prosecutor Ouk Sa­vouth was given a warning.

No reasons explaining the punishments have been made public.

Ang Vong Vathana said Wed­nesday that despite his early order to charge them with taking bribes

—a criminal offense—there are no plans to try any of the men for a criminal offense because they have already been punished.

Then, last week, Yam Yet be­came the newest victim of the iron fist. Tuot Lux, secretary of state for justice, said Appeals Court Pro­se­cutor Sar Yosthavorak would re­place Yam Yet, temporarily.

Ang Vong Vathana on Wednes­day defended the crackdown on the judiciary.

“The government would never influence the decision,” he said. “It is about the procedures…. When we get something wrong with the procedure, then something must be done. But if they don’t do something wrong, they don’t need to worry,” he said.

“I think [court officials] think more and more before making a decision,” Ang Vong Vathana said. “It’s not only based on money.”


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