Five months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Sok An told representatives from donor countries gathered as the Consultative Group that real legal and judicial reform in Cambodia was on its way.
It was Dec 6 and not only were important reforms already underway at the ministries of Justice and Interior, he said, but the secretariat to the Supreme Council of Magistracy was being strengthened to reinforce independence and self-rule.
The secretariat was established by Royal decree on May 24, 2001, and was charged with taking all complaints regarding judges and prosecutors and investigating them.
From there the information was to be passed to the council’s disciplinary committees and any offenders would be punished or absolved accordingly.
Prior to the subdecree, the Ministry of Justice had possessed that role.
Last week, contrary to Sok An’s statements, Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved the secretariat with the signing of a new subdecree and transferred the power back to the Justice Ministry.
“We had created [the secretariat] in order to have independence and not relate it to the Ministry of Justice,” Hun Sen said Saturday at a pagoda inauguration in Kandal province. “However, the Ministry of Justice can’t ask anything so the only way is to dissolve [the secretariat].”
He went on to say that the secretariat had been slow in implementing his “iron fist” clampdown on corruption in the judiciary and the move would allow Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to take swift, decisive action.
“[Now] the Minister of Justice is the gateway to the Supreme Council of Magistracy,” Hun Sen said. “So the Minister of Justice is also close to the Prime Minister.”
Ang Vong Vathana could not be reached for comment Sunday.
Tuot Lux, Justice Ministry secretary of state, said Sunday all complaints will now go through his ministry.
“It was slow and there were mistakes [at the secretariat],” Tuot Lux said. “It affected the work of the ministry. We do not have more power but we now have authority.”
But some observers point out that when the secretariat was originally established, the Justice Ministry was controlled by then-Funcinpec minister Ouk Vithun.
Ouk Vithun, now a member of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, declined to comment Sunday.
Observers suggest that now, with CPP-member Ang Vong Vathana heading the ministry, the power is returning.
“During the first government there was a CPP Minister of Justice,” said Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development. “He had a lot of power over the judiciary partly because of the legacy of the past and partly because he was a CPP member.”
Now, the Justice Ministry is taking back the powers that were removed when Ouk Vithun was the minister, Lao Mong Hay said.
He said while the Supreme Council of Magistracy is unofficially controlled by the government, recent emphasis has been placed on reforming it. By transferring some of its authority, the government can reform the council but keep its true power in the ministry.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said if the Ministry of Justice actually investigates complaints against judges and prosecutors and passes the cases on to the disciplinary committees, the system could work better.
“If the Ministry of Justice makes it more transparent, it’s okay,” Sok Sam Oeun said.
But Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said moving the secretariat’s powers under the Justice Ministry puts it directly under the government’s control.
“Even the existing secretariat they controlled, but two bodies might have been difficult to control. Now it is easy to control,” he said.
He added: “If they want to see reform, they must give power to the Supreme Council of Magistracy to build itself.”