As authorities began investigating an additional 129 alleged cases of criminals and suspects buying their freedom, a Municipal Court official said Monday that meager government salaries of about $15 a month forced court officials to accept payments.
But the court official maintained that acceptance of money and gifts did not influence decisions or necessarily constitute corruption. Rather, he said, the payments merely ensured that more time and better service would be devoted to a particular case.
“It is very hard to say if there is corruption or not because when we release someone we have the law to support our reason,” said the court official, who talked on the condition of anonymity. “We receive some money from their lawyers or family to thank us but we do not change what is black to something that is white. Can you call this corruption?”
The official’s comments came as Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara widened the scope of what has become a controversial crackdown on court corruption. The municipal governor said Monday that a total of 195 cases dating back to late 1998 are now under investigation, up from an initial 66 case.
In wake of a directive Friday by Prime Minister Hun Sen, more than 30 suspects now have been rearrested. It was unclear Monday how long they would be detained, and whether they were merely being questioned or would be recharged.
According to the court official, some court members have visited the UN human rights representative based in the Phnom Penh courthouse to discuss the human-rights implications of the court corruption crackdown, and concerns about their safety and security.
Rosemary McCreery, director of the UN human rights center in Phnom Penh, said Monday she was unaware of any court officials visiting the UN office. However, the UN was monitoring the situation, she said.
A consortium of 16 Cambodian human rights groups issued a statement Monday condemning Hun Sen’s directive as unlawful and unconstitutional. Among other things, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee said the government action intimidates court officials who now will not dare release suspects because of fear of government reprisal.
The initial 66 cases being investigated were based on releases from PJ Prison, Chea Sophara said Monday. The additional 129 cases, he said, are from records of released criminals from T3 prison in Phnom Penh.
T3 Prison Director Kuy Bunsron said Monday that the 129 suspects either had charges dropped against them or were released for other reasons before trial.
Chea Sophara sharply criticized the mounting criticism of the initiative to rearrest those suspected of paying court officials bribes to secure their release. He said he couldn’t understand the criticism, given current efforts to clean the courts of corruption.
No one questions Cambodian courts need to be reformed.
Thomas Hammarberg, the UN human rights envoy to Cambodia, told the UN General Assembly last month that there existed in Cambodia a “deep crisis in people’s trust in the justice system.”
Hammarberg stressed the lack of resources and training among members of Cambodia’s judiciary, the long pre-trial detention periods and the low salaries that encouraged bribery.
However, rights workers and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party have charged that the rearrest initiative interferes with judicial independence and violates the human and legal rights of those rearrested.
The court official’s rationale for taking payments also was criticized Monday.
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said that low salaries among municipal court employees may constitute a corrupting factor but said this is a problem in all sectors of society and should not be used as an excuse.
“In our law public prosecutors are independent. Judges are independent. When they accept gifts they affect this independence and impartiality,” said Lao Mong Hay. “Judges, public prosecutors and police officers must be people of integrity.”
He noted the issue of underpaid court officials was addressed recently by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy—Cambodia’s highest judiciary body. He said it was his understanding that the council proposed that salaries for judges and prosecutors be raised to about $400 a month.
The draft must be reviewed by the Ministry of Justice and approved by the Council of Ministers and the Parliament before becoming law.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, agreed Monday that low salaries were a contributing factor in court corruption.
“[But] the salary is only one factor….The whole [legal] system has collapsed and that is not a factor of the salary,” said Sok Sam Oeun, adding that holes in the criminal code offer opportunities for corruption to seep into cases.
For example, he noted that the Cambodian system places excessive power into the hands of trial judges who have access to all documentation related to a case and can therefore determine the outcome long before the actual trial.
The court official used the example of those charged with drug trafficking.
“Drug dealers under our law can be sentenced to prison terms or face a maximum fine of 10 million riel ($2,500). When we fine and then release, am I doing wrong?” the court official asked.
He added: On $15 we cannot live so we receive some presents from the winners [of cases]…. you cannot make a living so we have to make money from some other way.”