Former Phnom Penh Municipal Court director Ang Mealaktei, who was ousted Tuesday amid claims of corruption at the court, was granted a new position in the Ministry of Justice during the ceremony to replace him on Wednesday.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry also confirmed that the sudden ouster of Mr. Mealaktei on Tuesday—less than a year after his appointment—followed directly from a scathing speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen that morning.
At a ceremony presided over by Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Mealaktei’s position as the municipal court’s top judge was handed to Taing Sunlay, who previously served as the court’s deputy director.
Mr. Mealaktei opened the proceedings at the court by giving a speech reporting on the municipal court’s activities since he was appointed its director in April, noting that the court investigated 1,979 felonies under his watch.
The Justice Ministry’s director-general of administration and finance, Chan Mono, then took to the stage to read out a royal decree issued by King Norodom Sihamoni making Mr. Mealaktei’s removal official.
“We order…Ang Mealaktei, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court director, to be transferred to work at the Ministry of Justice,” read Mr. Mono. “Secondly, Taing Sunlay, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy director, is appointed as the director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court.”
Mr. Mono did not say what post Mr. Mealaktei would take up, and Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap said in a press conference after the ceremony only that he would “serve” the ministry.
With Anti-Corruption Unit chairman Om Yentieng and Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong sitting alongside Mr. Vong Vathana on stage, Judge Sunlay told the audience that he would serve virtuously as the court’s new director.
“I vow to be true to the nation, religion, and king, to respect the Constitution and other laws, to defend the people’s interests and to respect professional ethics,” the court director said. “I vow to make a better judicial service, with efficiency and speed to avoid making things late.”
Mr. Mealaktei is currently under investigation by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which appoints, oversees and disciplines the country’s judges, and made the decision to remove him as court director after convening on Tuesday.
The judge’s removal was revealed publicly that afternoon, just hours after Mr. Hun Sen suggested that a multi-million dollar bribe led to the court’s decision on February 6 to overturn its denial of bail to the parents of fugitive general Thong Sarath, who stands charged with the murder of businessman Ung Meng Chue last year.
Major General Sarath’s mother and father were arrested on Sunday night while attempting to flee to Vietnam in an ambulance despite facing illegal weapons possession charges themselves.
“He’s been removed for an investigation,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said of Mr. Mealaktei on Tuesday. “What he did was according to his discretion, not according to due process and not according to the law.”
Mr. Mealaktei was only appointed the municipal court’s top judge in April, after being transferred from the same job at the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court, where he had also been dogged by claims of graft and judicial irregularities.
At the ceremony Wednesday, Mr. Socheatvong, the governor, stressed that the judicial system had come a long way in reforming and ridding itself of corruption, but that any blips in that trend threatened to spoil that progress.
“The government has issued a strategy of legal and judicial reform, with efforts from every level of court, but we still see problems that ought to be noted, because some people’s ideas are bad, and people always take these problems to evaluate the judicial system in Cambodia,” he said.
Mr. Santepheap, the spokesman, confirmed during the press conference after the ceremony that the decision to remove Mr. Mealaktei was made as a direct result of Mr. Hun Sen’s speech suggesting corruption at the court.
“This does not mean that Hun Sen ordered the removal, he only asked the Supreme Council of the Magistracy to review whether this case has irregularities,” he said.
“The transfer of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court director to the Justice Ministry was a decision of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.”
Mr. Santepheap also defended Mr. Mealaktei’s appointment to a Justice Ministry job.
“Transferring the duties of Ang Mealaktei to the Justice Ministry is the first step to open a review of his case,” he said. “The Justice Ministry is now reviewing the files and documents involving the parents of Thong Sarath.”
However, opposition lawmaker Son Chhay criticized the decision to appoint Mr. Mealaktei to any position in the ministry given the severity of the claims leveled against him as a judge.
“Ang Mealaktei, the former head of the Phnom Penh court, is very corrupt. He was the head of the court in Siem Reap and later in Banteay Meanchey, and so many people complained that he used the position for extortion,” he said.
“This is the problem in the CPP system. They never exactly punish bad people. They just remove them from a position, and then sometimes give them a better position.”