Suspects released by Phnom Penh Municipal Court will be retried for the same crime but this time based on fresh evidence from investigators, two government officials said Tuesday.
And criminals released early by judges from prison will be sent back to prison to complete their sentences, authorities said.
However, as the government’s crackdown on alleged court corruption pushes ahead, a Municipal Court judge said Tuesday that retrials would be impossible.
“If they ask the court to retry we won’t know how to retry….We will decide the same [verdict as before] so we cannot do it,” he said.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara launched the crackdown last week, when he alleged bribe-taking among municipal court officials and complained to high government officials. The Justice Ministry formed a committee to investigate, and Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive to rearrest criminals and suspects.
The government’s plan on how to proceed with those rearrested became somewhat more clear on Tuesday, but experts continued to question the legality of the process.
Om Yentieng, senior adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said those rearrested will face retrial in Phnom Penh Municipal Court based on additional evidence provided by police. Those who have committed crimes since their release will be charged separately with new offenses, he added.
Chea Sophara said Tuesday that criminals released by court officials from PJ and T3 prisons before the end of their sentences will be sent back to finish their sentences. He said 47 of a total of 195 criminals or suspects slated for rearrest had been apprehended by Tuesday afternoon.
Pal Chandara, assistant to the cabinet of government lawyers, confirmed the government’s plan Tuesday but also indicated the cases would be reviewed first by the Justice Ministry and the Supreme Council of Magistracy.
But it appeared that those reviews would be done mainly as a step toward disciplining court officials found to have taken bribes.
Justice Ministry Secretary of State Suy Nou, who is heading the ministry’s investigation committee, said the committee will be reviewing the “technical process” of the cases.
“I will decide fairly who is right and who is wrong then file [a report] to the disciplinary council of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy,” he said.
Under Cambodian criminal procedure, no one may be detained more than 48 hours without being brought before a judge, following charges filed by a prosecutor.
According to the judge interviewed, six-month detention warrants were issued by the courts retroactively on Monday for those rearrested over the weekend.
A Western human rights officer charged that the whole process is illegal and issuing detention warrants after the fact compounds the problems.
“First and foremost the initial arrests are illegal no, ifs or buts about that,” he said. “A legal detention needs legal documents and they are illegal arrests so these [detention warrants] mean nothing.”
In addition, he noted: “No one can be held for more than four months. Only in exceptional cases a judge can order two months more with a reasonable explanation.”
He said a retrial—even if more evidence comes to light—also is illegal. “Certainly, international law prohibits such a situation and Cambodia has ratified this law.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said Tuesday that the government could attempt a retrial under State of Cambodia Law.
However, he agreed a retrial of suspects released by the courts violates an international convention on civil and political rights, which is recognized by the Cambodian Constitution.
“I don’t think they [legally] can do this…. I also think that no judge will say the government decision is wrong,” said Sok Sam Oeun.
Thomas Hammarberg, the UN special human rights envoy to Cambodia, said by statement Tuesday that problems in the judiciary needed “strong measures” but the government’s methods were problematic.
“Serious problems do indeed exist in the operation of the courts. However, these problems should be addressed in accordance with the rule of law and with due regard to the independence of the judiciary,” Hammarberg stated.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, however, added his support Tuesday to Hun Sen’s decision to rearrest suspects and criminals, noting it was a positive step against corruption and would ensure safety and security for ordinary people.
“For me I absolutely support [the decision] because I think the people’s safety must be assured…. People no longer have trust in competent authorities because criminals are arrested by the police are then freed by the court,” the prince said.
The prince acknowledged that the rearrests may not have been legal, but said the current situation demands strong measures and it was now time to move the process forward within the legal framework.
“We have to find a procedure to make it accepted legally…. [Hun Sen’s directive] is responding to the obvious situation in Cambodia. What the prime minister is doing is…preventing social disturbance especially corruption that must be eliminated firstly within the Justice Ministry’s framework [and] the court itself.”
Meanwhile, many court officials stayed away from the municipal court house Monday and Tuesday, fearing rumors that a public protest against the staff had been planned.
“I am afraid of violence from those who lost cases,” said the judge, who claims he and other colleagues have received threatening telephone calls.
The judge added that some court officials who issued the detention warrants simultaneously sent requests to the Appeals Court to overturn their own warrants. An Appeals Court clerk said Tuesday, however, that he had not seen any such requests.