Ministries Discuss New Appeal Courts, Judicial Reform

The Ministry of Justice is moving ahead with plans to expand the Appeal Court system around the country as part of inter-ministerial talks that began on Monday on the subject of judicial reform.

The talks, which are expected to wrap up today, focus on a long-awaited and constitutionally required draft law on the organization of the judiciary, and also included the possibility of setting up separate commercial and labor-specific courts.

Sam Pracheameanith, the ministry’s Cabinet chief, declined to provide a copy of the law, but said the draft contains nine chapters and 94 articles, the purpose of which is to “guarantee the independence of the court, impartiality rights…ensuring good court procedures and prosecutions, and to promote it as an effective public service.”

“Chapter 4, which has 20 articles, pertains to establishing five other Courts of Appeal in different areas around the country,” Mr. Pracheameanith said.

Legal advocacy groups have long decried a backlog of cases at the country’s sole Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh, to which some prisoners have not been transported in time to attend their appeal hearings.

Provincial prison officials have often cited a lack of funds for petrol as the primary reason that prisoners cannot travel to their appeals in Phnom Penh.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid group the Cambodian Defenders’ Project, said Tuesday that he had been calling for the establishment of two additional appeal courts “for many years,” as far back as 2000.

“I think that it can reduce the caseload and it will be easier for the people in the provinces to have access to the appeal court,” he said.

In December 2011, during his sixth mission to Cambodia, U.N. human rights envoy Surya Subedi described the pace with which judicial reforms moved as “frustratingly slow.”

Last week, during his 10th mission, he welcomed assurances that the three draft laws—which also include one on the selection of judges and another on reform of the Supreme Council of Magistracy—would finally come to fruition this year.

Mr. Pracheameanith said that beyond the law tabled in the inter-ministerial meeting this week, the other two are currently under review by the Supreme Council of Magistracy.

He said Chapter 2, which has 23 articles, also covers the establishment of commercial and labor courts.

Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, said he was skeptical that the proposed reforms would materialize, let alone change a court system that has shown itself to be beholden to the ruling CPP.

“I’m skeptical about these reforms; it’s been years, and they haven’t done it yet, so I don’t think they will have a sense of [urgency] in their minds,” Mr. Virak said.

“[The courts] have been used as a political tool for political interests.”

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