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Cablegate: Moj Clears Controversial Ratanakiri Judge of Misconduct

VZCZCXRO3415
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0863 3240329
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 200329Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1389
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS PHNOM PENH 000863

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS AND DRL
USAID FOR ASIA BUREAU

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM CB
SUBJECT: MOJ CLEARS CONTROVERSIAL RATANAKIRI JUDGE OF MISCONDUCT
CHARGES

REF: A) PHNOM PENH 654, B) PHNOM PENH 538

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED

1. (SBU) The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) announced November 12 that it
had investigated and cleared Ratanakiri Provincial Court Judge Thor
Saron of accusations of misconduct. The unusual investigation into
the judge's behavior came at the request of the King, who was
responding to calls from civil society groups for Judge Thor's
removal. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) had accused
Judge Thor of acquiring 100 hectares of land near the site of a long
running dispute in exchange for dropping charges against 10 ethnic
minority villagers involved in the dispute. CCHR also alleged that
the judge was illegally using a vehicle confiscated in 2008 as
evidence in a robbery case.

2. (SBU) Judge Thor has been involved in two high-profile land
dispute cases in Ratanakiri Province, which has brought him under
the scrutiny of local human rights NGOs. He is the current
investigating judge assigned to handle the Kong Yu case, in which a
group of ethnic minority villagers have accused Keat Kolney, sister
of the Minister of Economy and Finance, of illegally seizing land
for a rubber plantation (Ref A). He is also the presiding judge in
the case of Cambodian developer the DM Group, which is engaged in a
land dispute with two villages. After summoning Cambodian Human
Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) representative Pen Bonnar
for questioning on incitement charges related to the DM Group
dispute, Judge Thor publicly suggested that charges would not be
brought against Pen if ADHOC removed him from Ratanakiri (Ref B).
ADHOC removed Pen from the province, but the Court pressed charges
anyway.

3. (SBU) Thor raised NGO suspicions again in early September when he
submitted a request to Lumphat District authorities requesting 100
hectares of land for his livestock, located near the village of 10
individuals whom he was prosecuting on criminal charges related to
the DM Group dispute. A commune official told NGOs and the press
that local leaders had offered Judge Thor land in exchange for
dropping the charges against the villagers, although the judge's
request made no mention of the criminal case. In a September 22
press article, Judge Thor raised further questions from civil
society by admitting that for over a year he had been using a
vehicle confiscated by police during a robbery investigation.

4. (SBU) On October 12, the MOJ launched an investigation into the
judge's alleged misconduct, at the request of the King. A team from
the MOJ's General Inspection Department traveled to the province in
late October to conduct interviews with Judge Thor, local officials,
and village representatives. Announcing their findings on November
12, the MOJ investigators stated that Judge Thor's ownership of the
land in question seemed to be legitimate, as no villagers had denied
Judge Thor's ownership. The investigators' report failed to address
the allegations of misconduct. Similarly, the investigators found
that Judge Thor's use of a seized vehicle for over a year was
permissible, because the vehicle was used for "public interests",
such as transporting prisoners. Civil society groups immediately
criticized the MOJ's findings; ADHOC's President said that the
investigation had "not provided justice", and noted that his
organization would file a separate complaint against Judge Thor
regarding his conduct in the Pen Bonnar case.

5. (SBU) COMMENT: Although Thor Saron seems to have escaped
disciplinary action for now, his case is notable in that it is one
of a number of recent human rights cases in which King Sihamoni has
become involved, possibly signaling an effort by the monarchy to
speak out more. The case also highlights the continuing general
lack of understanding about the Land Law. Regardless of how the
local community, provincial authorities, and the MOJ perceive
ownership, per law the land in question could not be "given" to
Judge Thor without being registered in the national cadastre. And
if it were communal property belonging to the ethnic minority groups
in the area, the Land Law states that they would need to agree as a
community to sell or give a piece of the land to an individual.

RODLEY

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