Judicial Ministry Handcuffed by Lack of Funds

Earlier this month, newly appointed Secretary of State Kassie Neou of the Justice Min­istry telephoned a provincial judge regarding a complaint lodged with the ministry by a human rights activist concerning a case the judge was hearing.

To Kassie Neou’s surprise, the judge refused to divulge any information about the case, saying that the secretary’s request constituted interference in the court’s independence.

“I am the judge, please, let me do my job,” Kassie Neou recalled the magistrate as saying, as he described the conversation at a Nov 12 meeting between justice ministry officials and representatives from legal NGOs.

Technically, the judge was right. The authority to investigate procedural complaints, though initially granted to the ministry in a 2000 subdecree, was stripped away in a 2001 subdecree that handed that responsibility to the Secretariat of the Supreme Council of Mag­istracy, the country’s highest legal authority.

“The ministry wants to inspect judges’ wrongdoing, but we cannot do it,” said Khiev Sameth, director general of the Justice Min­­istry’s department of inspection. “The subdecree empowering us to do so was taken away.”

Kassie Neou was more blunt.

“The ministry is like an amp­utee,” he said. “We cannot do any­thing, because our legs and hands have been cut.”

The complaints echo the paradox of the CPP-led Justice Min­istry: Though charged with the task of judicial reform—a perennial rallying cry of ordinary citizens, donors, activists and government officials alike—the ministry’s minuscule budget and ever-diminishing powers make realizing that goal a bleak pros­pect, officials said.

From its political power to its pocketbook, Kassie Neou said, the ministry is woefully under-equipped to tackle the four main objectives assigned to it at the time of its creation: Combating corruption, judicial and administration reform and military demobilization.

In 2003, the budget for the  Justice Ministry—then led by Fun­cinpec—was $2,412,000, according to government reports. The Ministry of Tour­ism’s allocation in that same period was slightly more than $3,035,000.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said Wednesday that lack of funds is an ongoing hindrance to the ministry’s functioning.

During the tri-monthly meeting with NGO officials on Nov 12—a practice introduced in this government mandate—both Kassie Neou and Khiev Sameth agreed that efforts to reform the judiciary would be more effective if the ministry retained control of training judges and prosecutors.

In 2002, the Council of Min­isters took responsibility for that task, which was formerly within the justice ministry’s domain.

Fifty-five new judges and prosecutors will graduate from the Royal School of Judges and Prosecutors in 2005, Director Kim Sathavy said Monday. She said she did not know why the Council of Ministers was charged with its administration.

Despite the Justice Ministry’s frustration with the institution’s apparent impotence, some legal reform advocates offered counter-arguments against the ministry maintaining control over the judiciary.

According to the Constitution, only the Supreme Council of Magistracy is entitled to investigate complaints against judges and prosecutors in order to preserve the judiciary’s independence, said Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.

The Justice Ministry “should not ask the judge about a judgment” in an ongoing case, Sok Sam Oeun said.

Ideally, the ministry should address concerns about current cases to the court clerk, who would relay information to and from the judge or prosecutor, he said.

The Justice Ministry has enough power to implement judicial reform, he said, but does not use it properly.

Though expected to be an independent judicial body, the magistracy council has also been widely criticized for what have appeared to be politically motivated decisions.

In March, the council removed investigating Judge Hing Thirith from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after he dropped charges against two suspects in the shooting of union leader Chea Vichea, citing insufficient evidence against the pair.

The judges removal was widely criticized.

Supreme Council Secretariat Real Muon could not be reached for comment.

Recalling his recent telephone conversation with the provincial judge, Kassie Neou said the judge’s conduct struck him as less the act of an neutral justice and more like a court out of control.

“Is this judges’ independence?” he asked.

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