Judicial Laws Put Independence of Courts in Jeopardy

Three constitutionally mandated judicial laws would adversely affect the independence of the courts if they are passed in their current draft state, legal experts warned on Friday.

Draft versions of 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 have been analyzed by a legal team from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which on Friday presented their conclusions in Phnom Penh.

“The fact is, on the ground, our courts have been denounced widely and publicly,” said Duch Piseth, CCHR’s trial monitoring coordinator, who expressed his concerns that if the Supreme Council of Magistracy is not independent, the judiciary won’t be either.

“At the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the new law says that the Minister of Justice will just automatically be a member, but he’s from the executive branch, which may compromise the independence,” he said.

It would also limit the powers of King Norodom Sihamoni, who is constitutionally required to ensure the independence of the body.

Were the laws to follow international best practices, then council members would not be selected by votes from the National Assembly and Senate, which are legislative bodies, but chosen by independent legal professors and experts instead, Mr. Piseth said.

The Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors, he said, should also ensure that they are neutral.

“It needs to be more specific that there can be no campaigning for a political party,” he said.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, said the lack of government consultation with NGOs on the law was worrying, and exacerated by the fact that elected lawmakers from the opposition CNRP are boycotting their seats in parliament because they dispute the outcome of last year’s election.

Pime Minister Hun Sen has noted that the government has no legal obligation to seek input from civil society.

“We don’t object to their adoption, but there needs to be wide consultation. The National Assembly should wait until after the political deadlock, because the people who adopt these laws will be from one party,” said Mr. Sam Oeun.

According to legal and political analyst Lao Mong Hay, the laws also overlook the need for a system of compensation when judges err in convicting innocent people.

He cited the case of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who were wrongfully imprisoned for more than five years each for the murder of union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.

“They are entitled to effective compensation, which also keeps the courts in check,” he said.

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