Two top officials at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court have been temporarily suspended pending the outcome of an investigation into court corruption, officials said Wednesday.
Municipal Court Director Oum Sarith and chief prosecutor Kann Chhoeun were ordered by Justice Minister Uk Vithun to stop work Tuesday following a request by a committee investigating allegations that officials took bribes in exchange for releasing criminals and suspects.
Justice Secretary of State Suy Nou, who heads the investigating committee, said Wednesday the committee requested the two to be suspended because “they have responsibility over things that happen in the court.”
Municipal governor Chea Sophara alleged last week that seven court officials had received a total of $311,000 in bribes in 20 high-profile cases alone. Prime Minister Hun Sen followed with a directive to rearrest criminals and suspects released early.
The scope of the investigation has widened from an initial 66 cases to 195 cases dating back to late 1998, and 47 suspects and criminals had been rearrested as of Tuesday afternoon. Rights workers maintain the rearrests are unconstitutional, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy has characterized them as a judicial coup d’etat by Hun Sen.
Kann Chhoeun confirmed his suspension Wednesday, and added all he can do now is wait. “They accuse me. I don’t know what I can do about that but remain quiet and watch what they are doing,” he said. Oum Sarith couldn’t be reached for comment.
Two constitutional experts criticized the suspensions Wednesday, saying that only the Supreme Council of Magistracy has such authority.
“Ministers cannot suspend. It is against our Constitution,” said Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy.
He added that even Uk Vithun’s position as acting president of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy does not grant him power to suspend. “No single member can do this. There should be a meeting of the council to decide the matter.”
A Western legal expert agreed, but added that Uk Vithun “will say he has the power to do it.” The legal adviser noted that as a Funcinpec minister, Uk Vithun could have met resistance to the suspensions from CPP hardliners in the CPP-dominated Supreme Council of the Magistracy.
Suspended court director Oum Sarith also is a member of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, he added. “Basically, [to avoid complications] he [Uk Vithun] wanted to do something very quickly,” the legal adviser said.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Wednesday the suspensions were justified considering the seriousness of allegations made against municipal court officials.
“It doesn’t mean they are guilty or not because the committee has not made any conclusion. This is normal procedure because of the grave accusations,” Khieu Kanharith said.
A senior government lawyer also said Wednesday the suspensions were normal procedure. “Every country in the world follows this procedure…. They don’t say they are wrong but how can we tolerate someone who is being investigated?”
The government lawyer said low salaries were no excuse for taking payments, as had been claimed by one court official this week.
“Everyone’s salary is low. If you use your status to take money you are wrong.”
Nobody in the civil service can take money,” said the lawyer. “There is corruption, corruption and corruption…. Everyone receives money…. Money from businessmen is not important but if you take money from criminals, many criminals this is dangerous for the people. It puts peoples’ lives in danger.”