This is the second in an occasional series on judicial reform.Uk Savuth has his work cut out for him.
The newly appointed head prosecutor of the Municipal Court, his office is in complete disarray: There are no files or records in sight and staff members run around the office with little guidance.
Not even the electricity is in order; staff members are required to pay for it themselves.
“I come here, and I have to pay. It’s very strange,” said Uk Savuth. “The problems here have been around for many, many years. But no one ever cared to solve them. Now, I have to care.”
Uk Savuth’s transfer was part of a recent attempt to clean up the judiciary by the executive branch—a move questioned for doing more harm than good because it was too hasty and only reinforced the executive’s control over judges and prosecutors, legal analysts say.
Now the spotlight rests on more long-term, systematic reforms initiated by officials within the judicial system and NGOs who yearn for long-lasting change in a country rife with violence and crime that often goes unpunished by authorities.
Sadly, however, those reform efforts have been stalled for years, leaving many questioning whether there is any will to reform at all.
When Justice Minister Uk Vithun took his post about a year ago, he pledged that reform was imminent, calling it a “major obligation” of the government.
But legal watchdogs say lip service is inadequate.
“They say reform, but they don’t know how: Draft the law, amend the law, provide training,” said Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project. “This is reform.”
Talk to anyone involved in legal reform, and they lament that a number of key draft laws still await adoption. Most agree genuine legal reform lacks political will because leaders are reluctant to relinquish power over what was just a few years ago a more centralized system led by a few communist party members.
To initiate judicial reform, a handful of statutes are considered by experts as crucial building blocks for a “rule of law” in Cambodia: basic penal, criminal-procedural and civil codes, and laws dealing with the duties, organization, salaries and discipline of judges, prosecutors and clerks.
In the case of the penal code, Cambodia relies on a 1993 statute written as a transitional law to tide the country over until a new one was written. While the first draft of the new code was written years ago, it remains in committee at the Justice Ministry, waiting to be sent to the Council of Ministers, ministry officials said.
Sok Sam Oeun said the penal code could be the most pressing need in Cambodia right now, as it outlines what is criminal in Cambodia. The old law spells out 40 or 50 crimes. The new draft, 500, he said. For instance, Cambodia currently has no law on domestic violence, Sok Sam Oeun said. Crimes have to be named, he said, before they can be understood and enforced.
Both the penal and criminal-procedural codes reportedly are finished and being read by committees at the Ministry of Justice.
As for the civil code, the last time it was addressed was at the Justice Ministry seminar in August. Despite help from the Japanese government, a government lawyer said it could be years before the civil law is complete.
“Right now, I don’t even know who is my wife, because I don’t know what the law says,” joked the government lawyer, who asked not to be named.
“I see three key problems with these laws. One, the people work very slowly and very little. Two, we don’t have the human resources—there aren’t enough people to write and implement these laws. Three, and most importantly, the political leaders don’t underline this work. They support it, but only softly. And without this support, we cannot make progress,” the lawyer said.
For the government’s part, Justice Ministry Secretary of State Ly Vouch Leang said strong laws cannot be written overnight.
“Judicial reform cannot happen quickly,” she said, adding that the penal code still needs to be “checked” by French lawyers and the criminal-procedural code was given to Justice Minister Uk Vithun two months ago.
Despite repeated attempts to interview Uk Vithun in person, by letter and by phone, he said he was unavailable to comment on judicial reform.
Critics do acknowledge that some progress has been made.
A new draft law on judges’ duties and salaries was approved by the Supreme Council of Magistracy in November, at only its third formal meeting since it was created in 1993.
Lauded by legal experts for a proposed salary increase for judges—a measure thought to be crucial to reduce corruption and bribe-taking—the law also spells out disciplinary actions that can be taken against judges suspected of wrongdoing.
Yet that law, too, is being reviewed by the Justice Ministry, waiting to go to the Council of Ministers, ministry officials said.
A disciplinary committee set up by the Supreme Council of Magistracy—the country’s judicial enforcer—currently is reviewing roughly 20 judges and prosecutors suspected of wrongdoing. When the two top Municipal Court officials were removed last month, however, Supreme Court Chief Judge Dith Munty hinted that the committee can only act when it has received the go-ahead from high-ranking officials.
Former Municipal Court head prosecutor Kann Chhoeun, who was replaced by Uk Savuth, said he went before the disciplinary committee last week.
“It was like a teacher giving questions to students to answer,” he said Thursday. “But the committee gave me no score whether I am right or wrong.”
After he was removed from his post for alleged bribe-taking, he was transferred to an administrative post at the Justice Ministry. He had little comment on reforms, and it is unclear if he will face further reprimand.
“Since my job was over, I have become healthier. I have nothing to worry about….I can now work on my farm.”
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)