PM’s Order Keeps Acquitted Man Jailed

This is the first in an occasional series on judicial reform.

At the new T3 prison, Gha­naian inmate Eugene Okyebe tells guards he should be set free.

Unlike most other prisoners who claim their innocence, however, he has reason to complain: He already has been acquitted of drug trafficking by the Supreme Court on the grounds there was insignificant evidence to convict him.

But his release papers never came.

According to court documents, Eugene Okyebe’s case was heard Dec 3—the same day Prime Minister Hun Sen went on national TV to order the re-arrest of armed robbers, kidnappers and drug traffickers who were “re­leased by the courts, or released on bail…and those released before the end of their term of imprisonment” in an effort to crack down on alleged court corruption.

Okyebe’s lawyer says the decision to keep her client in prison was no coincidence.

“[The Supreme Court judges] wanted to help him, to allow him to be released. But they are scared. You don’t know everyone in Cambodia is scared of Hun Sen?” said defense attorney Keo Kimsan in a recent interview.

While her client likely would not have been targeted for re-arrest, she said Supreme Court judges were hesitant to release her client for fear they might be reprimanded or even fired.

Okyebe’s case not only highlights this growing fear among judges to act independently, but it shows that the executive’s recent, hasty attempts at judicial reform might instigate more harm than good, legal experts say.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Def­enders Project, could only click his tongue when he heard about Okyebe’s case.

“The government should reconsider their plan, fix this problem and to encourage judges to act on their own,” he said. “Only the prime minister can solve this problem. He ordered this….If he does not solve it, all judges will be afraid to carry out the law.”

A human rights worker went a step further and said he expects “very few acquittals now.”

“This case is a clear example of who really controls the judiciary in this country—and that any real attempts at reform will not be done by the book,” the rights worker said.

At the Supreme Court, where high-ranking CPP member Dith Munty serves as chief judge, one official maintained that they wanted to protect Okyebe from retaliation.

As Keo Kimsan tells it, they defended the move and said that waiting a few months could ensure his freedom.

Dith Munty would not respond to repeated attempts at an interview by phone and declined to speak to reporters outside his office on Monday. But another Supreme Court official who asked not to be identified confirmed the outcome of Okyebe’s case.

“The court decided to release him because there was not enough evidence,” the official said. “But when the order came from [the prime minister], the court blocked the process and said we can’t release him yet.

“We are right, legally, but we don’t know what to do,” he added.

Keo Kimsan said she has few reassurances for her client, because the executive order was made outside existing law.

“What am I supposed to tell him? Who am I supposed to complain to when there is no law to block the releases of prisoners, only an order from the top?”

She did, however, take up her case with the Ministry of Justice, which on Monday issued a letter to the Supreme Court that it formally issue its acquittal of  Okyebe.

While Keo Kimsan says she had no other recourse, hers is a problem indicative of larger issues within judicial reform, watchdogs say.

Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said too many decisions are left up to the Justice Ministry and not enough to the proper legal channels.

During the crackdown, for instance, judges suspected of corruption were suspended at Justice Minister Uk Vithun’s orders, even though they should have been considered by the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the judicial system’s top monitor established in 1993 but criticized recently for hardly meeting in its’ seven years of existence.

“The more progress we make toward reform, the less power should be centralized with the executive [the prime minister],” Lao Mong Hay said.

When questioned recently about reform efforts, especially about Okyebe’s case, Justice Minister Uk Vithun could only say, “Please talk to me about it later.”

At a recent annual meeting of all the country’s judges and prosecutors, Uk Vithun reportedly reinforced the prime minister’s stance on convicted criminals and ordered judges not to release criminals on bail and to impose maximum sentences.

The move came under fire from legal analysts who characterized it as yet another effort to thwart judges’ independence.

Of highest concern, said Lao Mong Hay, is making judges feel secure that they can apply the law, and if they break the rules, they will be dealt with through the proper channels.

He suggested that judicial workshops held late last year  helped judges gain confidence—but this very step might have worried the executive.

“They felt they needed to show who is boss,” he said. “That’s why we have to stand up and say ‘No, you can not do that.’ Public opinion wants independent, competent, informed system. But are the authorities responsive to this public opinion or not?”

(Addi­tional reporting by Phann Ana)




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