Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni has moved almost 60 court officials, judges, and prosecutors to new posts across the country in a move welcomed by NGOs and legal experts, who said that more still needs to be done to restore judicial independence in the autocratic Southeast Asian state.
The transfers were enacted by royal decrees signed by the king on Oct. 27 in his role as head of Cambodia’s Supreme Council of Magistracy, Cambodian media said on Tuesday.
Aimed at reducing corruption in the country’s judicial system, the transfers—a “routine procedure” authorized every four years—still fall short of reforms needed to ensure fair and honest dealings in the courts, one rights activist told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“There have been many requests for judicial reforms,” Am Sam Ath, Investigations Manager for the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho, said. “But even now there are still criticisms of the judicial system.”
Villagers involved in land disputes, NGO members, and human rights activists are frequently victims of unfair proceedings in the courts, he said.
Also speaking to RFA, Cambodian legal expert Heang Rithy said that he has often seen judges abuse the law and fail to provide justice in the cases brought before them.
“The Supreme Council of Magistracy must punish judges accordingly in order to prevent corruption,” Heang Rithy said.
Attempts to reach Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin for comment on the reshuffle were unsuccessful, but Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan called the move a reform to make sure that judges work effectively according to the country’s laws.
“We are reforming,” Phay Siphan said, adding, “We want to make sure that those judges are not partisan [in their rulings].”
Courts under fire
Cambodian courts have frequently come under fire for acting at the apparent direction of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, especially in politically sensitive cases.
On Oct. 24, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down five-year suspended sentences to four human rights activists and an official with the country’s National Election Commission in a case widely seen as targeting supporters of opposition party leader Kem Sokha, now under house arrest while awaiting trial on charges of treason.
In a statement, London-based Amnesty International’s senior director of global operations Minar Pimple called the sentences a “political outcome to a political case.”
“This is an obvious attempt to punish the activists for their peaceful human rights work, and deter them and others,” he said.
In one of the most egregious cases of politicization of the courts, Kem Sokha’s arrest in September last year on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated was followed two months later by a Supreme Court decision to dissolve his party for its part in an alleged plot to topple the government, banning its candidates from taking part in a July 29 general election that the CPP steamrolled without any viable opponent.
Amnesty noted that while Cambodia has recently released 20 people detained for rights work or expressing views critical of the government, most still have pending criminal charges or sentences “that could be resumed at any time.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.