Progress of Court Reform Slow by Any Standard

Editor’s note: This is another in a series of stories to be published in The Cambodia Daily ahead of the international donor meeting that begins Wednesday. The stories will mostly examine the various issues of reform the government continues to face, and the progress that has been made in those areas.

Judge Nop Sophon is tired of talking about judicial reform. For more than 20 years, he has discussed, debated and analyzed reforming Cambodia’s failed judicial system with officials from the government, the UN and various NGOs.

And in that time little has changed.

So it is understandable that he is hesitant to talk about the changes in the courts—not because he has anything to hide but because he is exhausted by the subject.

While discussing judicial reform at his sparsely furnished office in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Nop Sophon speaks fast and loud—traits he has honed after serving for 20 years as a judge in the court. In fact, in 1981 he was one of the first judges to work in Cambodia’s only court following the Khmer Rouge regime.

“The court is like a living organism—there are the veins, the lung, the liver—and if one of the organs in the body is broken, then the body would be disabled. The court system at this moment is like that,” Nop Sophon says, who quickly adds “We could not say that the court alone is responsible for justice. There is the police, people should know the law and respect the law.”

Twenty years is a long time for unfinished reforms to haunt the judiciary. While the specific issues have changed throughout the years, the basic need remains for an overhaul of Cambodia’s courts, the Ministry of Justice and, especially, the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.

Legal reforms are of significant importance for the upcoming Consultative Group meeting, as it has been for at least one year. Minister of Cabinet Sok An, speaking on judicial reforms on June 10, said the government placed a top priority on legal and judicial reforms during the 2001 CG meeting in Tokyo, but conceded that “progress in this area is slow compared to other commitments made by the Royal Government of Cambodia.”

During a mid-year review by donors in January in Phnom Penh, “concerns were raised by donors” as well about the lack of progress in legal reforms, Sok An said—a statement repeated by at least two diplomats.

“There are many urgent issues for the CG meeting, and judicial and legal reforms are certainly one of them,” said Gotaro Ogawa, the Japanese ambassador, who added that Japan has been working on providing assistance for the creation of a better civil and civil foundation code in Cambodia. “A good judiciary is the foundation to ensure justice in Cambodia.”

A failed judicial system affects many sectors of Cambodia, domestic and international critics maintain.

From excessive pre-trial detentions to a lack of confidence among foreign investors, an allegedly corrupt or inefficient court system can hinder economic development and violate human rights, some critics such as UN and International Monetary Fund officials have said in the past.

But one municipal court judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the courts.

“Critics say the courts are corrupt. What does the judge have? Do they have a dozen villas? Are the court officials rich? No,” the judge said. “Critics want to reform the court thinking it is corrupt, but they forgot to reform the people who are really important in the judicial process.”

One group essential to the judicial reform process, which has for the most part escaped intense public scrutiny, is the Supreme Council of the Magistracy.

This most powerful branch of the judiciary in Cambodia is responsible for, among other things, appointing and punishing corrupt judges.

In the past, officials from the UN, including human rights envoy Peter Leuprecht and officials from the Cambodian UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have criticized the Supreme Council of the Magistracy for its lack of “transparency.”

“The Supreme Council of Magistracy must be profoundly reformed,” Peter Leuprecht said June 3 when he arrived in Cambodia. “The judicial reforms are still far too slow.”

Even the unnamed court official agreed that the Supreme Council of the Magistracy needs reforms.

“By my thoughts, the Supreme Judicial Council [Supreme Council of Magistracy] should be reformed too. They judge court judges who are accused of wrong-doing, but who would judge the [Supreme Council of Magistracy] members?”

Currently, there are 195 cases since 1998 that are being examined for possible corruption by court officials, according to a 2002 government report titled “Legal and Judicial Reform Strategy For Cambodia,” released by the Ministry of Commerce. The report also stated that the Supreme Council of Magistracy has received complaints directly from parties in alleged cases of judicial misconduct by 28 judges and prosecutors in 12 different provinces. So far, however, these cases have not yet been resolved.

One member of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy and director of the Supreme Court, Dith Munty, agreed that there is a need for reform in the Magistracy.

“The [Supreme Council of the Magistracy] has a duty to help [King Norodom Sihanouk] in order to guarantee the independence of the court and guarantee the discipline of judges, and to guarantee the ongoing tribunals of the Kingdom of Cambodia—to make this go well, this organization needs firstly to be reformed,” Dith Munty said in a prepared speech read by a court official on May 29.

One of the most outspoken critics of the Magistracy is Yi Kosalvathanak, a former official with human rights group Adhoc who is currently working with the Working Group on the Shortage of Lawyers.

During an informal meeting at the Goldiana Hotel in May, Yi Kosalvathanak spoke at length about the lack of independence and alleged corruption in the Magistracy.

“If the government of Cambodia really wants to reform the judiciary, then they need institutional changes, and they need to reform the Supreme Council of the Magistracy,” He said. “The members of the Magistracy are not independent or free from non-political influence.”

Yi Kosalvathanak dismissed the Ministry of Justice as a ministry involved only in court administration rather than reforms. The Magistracy, he said, has much greater powers, such as the authority to punish and fire judges and prosecutors—a process which is carried out behind closed doors, without a public hearing or non-governmental scrutiny.

This absence of scrutiny leads to a lack of confidence in the entire judicial system and furthers the belief that Cambodia is a lawless place, he said.

“Sometimes, when someone is accused of stealing a moto, a mob will gather and kill that person. They do this because people have no confidence that the officials will arrest the right suspects, or that the right culprit will ever be brought to justice,” Yi Kosalvathanak said.

 

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