The Ministry of Justice has declared 2022 the year for “strengthening work discipline and ethics for officials in the judicial sector” in an attempt to overhaul its working processes, amid increasing concerns that the Cambodian judiciary is being bought over by business interests.
To introduce the initiative, justice minister Koeut Rith issued an instruction on May 20 to all civil servants who work in the judicial system to take steps to overcome biases.
He did so while presiding over the appointment of Chum Sar as the new Battambang Provincial Court president. Sar replaces Chea Vannak, who is now chief of Tbong Khmum Provincial Court.
At the appointment ceremony, the minister sought to assure the public that it is normal to appoint, replace and transfer judges and prosecutors, in order to ensure better and more efficient work to serve justice with impartiality and fairness.
He instructed Sar and judges, prosecutors, court clerks, bailiffs and civil servants at courts across the country to “strengthen work discipline and ethics in the sector” through strict implementation of measures and rules in accordance with the law.
“From 2022 onwards, discipline and ethics of officials in the justice system must be strengthened through the strict implementation of disciplinary measures according to the law,” he said.
Rith added that judicial sector officials would be promoted based on merit and qualifications.
He called on judges and prosecutors to “overcome biases, hone their knowledge and skills and be champions of honour, dignity and prestige in their service to the public.”
The justice minister advised judges across the country to work on improving their legal decision-making processes and establish procedures to give “correct and fair” verdicts without prejudice.
He also advised the courts to strengthen their human resource capacity by doing further research and holding workshops and training sessions, or sharing knowledge and experiences with their officials.
“All judges have to strive to strengthen the quality of their written verdicts as well as improve the quality of their… decisions, to ensure fairness according to the law and procedures in force,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group LICADHO, said Koeut Rith’s instruction was a step towards strengthening the judicial system, noting that justices have come under heavy criticism from the national and international communities for demonstrating bias in their legal decisions.
He cited the example of recent land disputes, where land community representatives had exercised their legitimate rights to defend their homes and lands, only to be charged by the courts and held in detention based on the complaints of conglomerates or the wealthy.
Sam Ath also highlighted that the courts had recently charged a number of environment and human rights activists, social workers and political activists and held them in detention, adding that the cases against these individuals had drawn criticism from both national and international communities for being “baseless and unsubstantiated”.
He said that members of the public had also raised issues concerning the courts’ lack of professional ethics, as well as irregularities observed in the exercising of due process.
Sam Ath said the latest instruction from the justice minister is a move towards “ensuring equality before the law, transparency and justice for victims… according to the principles of democracy and the rule of law, in which the three supreme powers – the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary – are separate and independent.”