Kem Sokha Says Judicial Laws Need Changing

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha told supporters Monday that the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers will soon ask to revisit the three controversial judicial reform laws passed by the National Assembly last year during the opposition party’s post-election parliamentary boycott.

Speaking at a ceremony marking the anniversary of the grenade attack on an opposition protest that killed 16 people in March 1997, Mr. Sokha said that changing the three laws would be the CNRP’s priority after the new National Election Committee (NEC) is established in the coming weeks.

CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha pays his respects Monday at a shrine honoring the 16 people who were killed in a grenade attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh on March 30, 1997. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha pays his respects Monday at a shrine honoring the 16 people who were killed in a grenade attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh on March 30, 1997. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“When we finish the elections issue by changing the law and changing the NEC, we will reform the national institutions by creating balance between the three institutions: legislative, executive and judicial,” Mr. Sokha said.

“In the future, it will be necessary for the CNRP to demand amendments to the three laws related to the courts, which means that those recently passed laws have not been able to push the courts to be independent,” he said.

“The CNRP will organize and request amendments by consulting with the current ruling party,” Mr. Sokha added. “If we want to change the court system, we have to begin by changing these three laws.”

The Law on the Organization of the Courts, the Law on the Status of Judges and Prosecutors and the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy were approved by the CPP-only parliament in May last year.

At the time, the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers-elect were boycotting their seats in the 123-seat assembly in protest of alleged electoral fraud in the 2013 national election, and the ruling party’s majority of lawmakers passed the laws.

The three laws were criticized for being drafted with little public consultation, and cementing a number of provisions that critics say threaten judicial independence by allowing executive overreach into court administration.

Among the more controversial provisions is one that places the justice minister on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the body that is responsible for appointing, overseeing and disciplining the country’s judges.

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said Monday that the public should not expect wholesale change of the three judicial laws, but that the opposition would seek to coax the CPP into amending key areas.

“What he said meant [the CNRP wants] to change some loopholes in the laws to make them better,” Mr. Ponhearith said. “There are a lot of loopholes in these laws, according to legal specialists and civil society groups.”

Yet Mr. Ponhearith acknowledged that any changes would depend on the support of the CPP’s 68 lawmakers.

“Under these circumstances, it is really difficult if the majority voice doesn’t want to do it,” he said.

CPP spokesmen Sok Ey San and Chhim Phal Virun both declined to comment on Mr. Sokha’s suggestion.

Suon Bunthoeun, the trial-monitoring coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which criticized the judicial laws last year, said he was happy the opposition is looking to review the laws.

Mr. Bunthoeun said the CNRP should focus on granting the Supreme Council of the Magistracy independence from the executive branch, enabling it to administer the courts without fearing backlash from powerful officials.

“They need to look into how to separate the powers. The main thing is that, for example, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy should be independent, and not be selected from the government,” Mr. Bunthoeun said.

“If they are selected by the government, the executive still has power over the judicial system,” he added.

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer who formerly headed the Cambodian Defenders Project legal aid NGO, said the opposition should seek to better stipulate the responsibilities of prosecutors and investigating judges in the court system.

“It would be better to make the relationship between prosecutor and judge more clear. Now the prosecutor’s role is not clear, and they need to divide the job between the investigating judge and the prosecutors,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.

Requiring judges to investigate criminal cases that they later preside over can lead the judges to form opinions before all the facts are given to them for judgment, according to Mr. Sam Oeun.

“This causes a lot of problems, while the prosecutors seem to not be doing so much,” he said.

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