Top Court Avers Gov’t Interference

A government lawyer has asked municipal authorities to ignore a Supreme Court decision  in a long-running land dispute, igniting charges that the government is circumventing the Consti­tution and allowing a US oil company to violate the law.

And in a letter written last month, then-acting head of state Chea Sim requested that Minister of Justice Chem Snguon effectively reverse the court’s decision.

The Supreme Court on Jan 29 ordered the seizure and sale of land now occupied by oil firm Caltex on Street 93 in Phnom Penh. The court sided with a Bel­gian national who claimed the dis­­­­puted land was sold illegally after it had been awarded to him as collateral in a 1993 court case.

Supreme Court officials said Wed­nesday the government law­yer’s April 8 letter to Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sop­hara asking local authorities not follow the court decision violated the court’s constitutional authority. The lawyer, Kao Bun Hong, who represents the Council of Ministers, also sent his letter to the director-general of the national police and the Interior Minis­try’s military police.

“Even the government cannot interfere in the Supreme Court’s affairs, according to the articles of the Constitution,” one Supreme Court judge said Wednesday. “There is simply no legal action that can be taken by a [government] lawyer against the Su­preme Court’s judgment, whe­ther it is being examined or ap­pealed.”

Kim Phon, acting Supreme Court prosecutor, said the court has the last say in the judicial process and must be followed. He said the de­cision will be enforced by the Municipal Court.

Um Sarith, the president of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, warned the chairman of Caltex Cambodia Holding Ltd in an April 27 letter that the company’s continued construction on the land is in direct violation of the law. The company is building a gas station.

“Having resisted the above civil judgment, the Caltex Co is proceeding with its construction on the plot of land….which is ab­solutely against the law,” the letter reads.

John Raeside, the general manager of Caltex Cambodia, was out of the country Thursday and not available for comment. A company official said Raeside is the only Caltex official prepared to comment on the issue.

The judges insisted that before ruling they had thoroughly re­searched their decision on the land dispute, which dates back to a poorly documented land sale in 1991. Michel Seeger, a Belgian national, was awarded the land in 1993 as collateral for being “swindled” in a separate business deal. He was never compensated however. Since then, the land has changed hands six times. Caltex purchased the property last June. The Supreme Court ordered the property sold to pay Seeger.

But Kao Bun Hong, in an April 1 letter to Chea Sim, argued that the judges misinterpreted an article of the land law and un­fairly punished Caltex. “Surely, the decision of the Su­preme Court in a civil case has sovereignty, but if a mistake happens in the court itself, sovereignty will become unsovereignty,” the law­yer wrote.

The lawyer, citing the consideration of “investment in Cambodia, especially big loyal investment such as Caltex company,” proposed an alternative to the Su­preme Court decision allowing Caltex to keep the land and See­ger to be reimbursed somehow.

One investment adviser in Phnom Penh rated Caltex as one of the top 10 companies in Cam­bodia in terms of size of investment and performance.

Seeger, in a May 12 complaint to the Belgian Embassy in Bang­kok, argued in the decision the city would repay any gas station licensing fees to Caltex.

Oum Sarith, an adviser to Chea Sim, said on Thursday that “new evidence” had emerged since the decision, which prompted Kao Bun Hong’s letter and Chea Sim’s appeal to Chem Snguon.

“We are not interfering, we just request to the Ministry of Justice to follow up [on] this case if they are correct or not,” Oum Sarith said, adding Kao Bun Hong could elaborate on the new evidence.

Kao Bun Hong could not be reached for comment Thursday, but court officials did not appear to be aware of any new evidence.

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