The Municipal Court’s two top officials suspended last month for alleged bribe-taking have been permanently removed from their positions following a decision by the Supreme Council of Magistracy, officials said Monday.
Dith Munty, Supreme Court director and a member of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, said suspended Municipal Court officials Oum Sarith and Kann Chhoeun were replaced during Friday’s council meeting.
The removals mark the first action taken by the council against judicial officials since the body was set up in 1993, Dith Munty said. The council is Cambodia’s highest legal body, responsible for ensuring independence of the courts, appointing judges and overseeing their conduct, yet has met less than a dozen times since it was formed and has long been criticized for supervising a corrupt system.
Tau Sopheary, a Justice Ministry bureau chief of civil and criminal law, will replace Oum Sarith, who served as the Municipal Court director, and Appeals Court Judge Uk Savuth will replace Kann Chhoeun, former Municipal Court chief prosecutor.
Kann Chhoeun will take up a new position at the Justice Ministry, and Oum Sarith will move to the secretariat of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Dith Munty said.
He noted that the council’s decision to “completely remove” the Municipal Court’s two top officials was not based on evidence against them but out of necessity for the court, which has not functioned adequately since the suspensions.
“The Supreme Council of Magistracy decided to transfer these men, but if they are to be punished for their responsibility in the court scandal, it will be up to the Supreme Council of Disciplinary later….They are involved with those problems, so we have replaced them to make work [at the court] run smoothly again,” Dith Munty said.
Minister of Justice Uk Vithun suspended the two officials Dec 7 after claims by Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara that 66 criminals and suspects were released after paying bribes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen then issued a directive to rearrest all criminals released by the courts, and the Justice Ministry set up a committee to investigate.
The Supreme Council of Magistracy was slated to make a decision on the future of Oum Sarith and Kann Chhoeun based on the committee’s finding, which they received Dec 29.
According to a copy of the committee’s finding, “irregularities among judges and prosecutors” were found in a number of the 66 cases reviewed by the committee.
Kann Chhoeun said Monday his removal was an act of revenge he could do nothing about. Unwilling to give more details, he said he was judged before the truth was known about his involvement in alleged court corruption. “The law has been put to one side. This is not respect for the law,” Kann Chhoeun said.
However, he added that he will now enjoy life free of personal safety worries and the responsibility of his position. “I have enough time to relax comfortably. I can eat noodles in the restaurant on the street and not care about my safety. Things are looking good for me. I would like to say thanks for the removal,” Kann Chhoeun said.
Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said Monday it remains to be seen if a proper investigation was conducted to force the removals.
The council must also pursue allegations made against other court officials and law enforcement agencies who were criticized by officials for complicity in bribe taking, Lao Mong Hay said.
“They [the supreme council] should continue the investigation, not only into the judiciary but into the [the police], who were involved in the finger pointing,” Lao Mong Hay said.
According to Dith Munty, the council is aware of problems within the court system but did not have the support of higher authorities to act before now.
“The Supreme Council of Magistracy planned to do this a long time ago but it was not the right time. Now [the council] is powerful,” said Dith Munty, adding that more members of the judiciary will change jobs.
Ang Eng Thong, head of the Cambodian Bar Association, welcomed the replacement decision on Monday and said the move was not only good for the Municipal Court but a positive move for the Cambodia’s legal system. “We must remove the malefactors but in a legal way,” Ang Eng Thong said.
Although neither of the officials have lost their jobs or their government salary, Ang Eng Thong said their new positions were in fact a tacit demotion. “I think that they have good jobs but now they have no power. Unlike their former jobs, they cannot provide profit,” he said.
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