Judicial Laws Cement Old Ways, Experts Say

The trio of judicial laws passed by the single-party National Assembly on Thursday and Friday, supposedly meant to ensure a more independent and accountable court system, will only legalize practices already deeply entrenched in the ailing and corrupt judicial system, legal experts said Monday.

The Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Courts and the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors were sent to the Senate last week.

If passed by the CPP-majority Senate, as expected, they will then be passed to the Constitutional Council of Cambodia and, finally, King Norodom Sihamoni to sign into law.

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent civil rights attorney, said the inevitable passage of the laws could, if anything, worsen the functioning of the judiciary. “[The system will] not change, the institutions are the same,” he said.

“This law is only legalizing the current practice,” Mr. Sam Oeun added. “Before, there was no law, so…now it only makes what they practice and what they do to be lawful.”

The drafts have already been condemned for failing to prohibit political affiliations and granting Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana powers above the Supreme Council of Magistracy.

Echoing Mr. Sam Oeun’s concerns, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and other rights groups on Monday also warned in a statement that the laws would “cement [the government’s] existing control over the country’s judges and prosecutors, posing a serious threat to the rule of law in Cambodia.”

Kingsley Abbott, the ICJ’s international legal advisor for Southeast Asia, said the draft laws contain some positive provisions—aiming to ensure the independence of judges and prosecutors in line with the Constitution and calling on judges to act independent of political pressure, threat or intimidation.

However, Mr. Abbott said via email, “the overall subordination of judges and prosecutors to the executive in violation of international standards is of serious concern.”

“We are also concerned that the CPP-members-only National Assembly decided to pass these laws without debate while refusing outside input from civil society and other interested groups —which is why we have asked for the Senate to delay considering the laws and open the issue up for public consultation.”

However, Sam Pracheameanith, chief of cabinet at the Ministry of Justice, said on Sunday that the laws would ensure a “perfect” judiciary.

“The laws will make the courts perfect and better than before, so the court system will be advanced in a good way with this deep reform,” he said.

Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap on Sunday defended the laws’ passage through parliament, despite an ongoing boycott by the opposition CNRP’s lawmakers-elect.

“Nobody can have more knowledge than the National Assembly,” Mr. Yeap said. “Our National Assembly is a true and legitimate assembly, so we don’t need to have any more debate.”

The CNRP, on the other hand, has taken a markedly passive approach to its role of an outside opposition during debate of the laws, a stance that CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said is being dictated by the opposition party’s leaders.

“Honestly, since we are not taking part in parliament, the party has no interest or has not been looking into the draft laws seriously,” he said.

CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have focused their attentions elsewhere and, “in the meantime, [lawmakers] are all over the place,” Mr. Chhay said.

“As a party, we should have our elected MPs [members of parliament] to work on that, but I am not in charge of the elected MPs,” he said. “I think some politicians were looking for any order from the leaders. But we have to do what the party leaders want us to do. It’s not easy for us.”

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