A Cambodian court on Wednesday sentenced seven former court officials to four years in prison after convicting them in absentia of taking bribes to help suspects evade prosecution, an official said. Battambang provincial judge Chhay Kong found three former judges, two former prosecutors and two former court clerks guilty of taking bribes when they worked at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, prosecutor Hoeung Bun Chea said.
The whereabouts of the defendants were not known. Hoeung Bun Chea declined to elaborate on the verdict, and the judge was not immediately available for comment.
Ham Mony, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said he and the six other defense lawyers will appeal the verdict.
"I did not see any proof to back up the charges during the trial. The conviction was based merely on police reports," said Ham Mony, who represented Ham Mengse, a former municipal court judge.
The defendants were charged with corruption in April after they allegedly took US$20,000 (Ђ15,475) in bribes to free six criminal suspects.
Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered legal action against the defendants following an Interior Ministry report noting "irregular conduct" of some of the judges at the municipal court.
Some observers were skeptical of Wednesday's verdict, saying it was only a result of Hun Sen's order. It remains to be seen if the government is truly committed to judicial system reforms, said Hang Puthea, a member of a coalition of groups that monitor political developments in Cambodia.
"The verdict may have just been staged" as a publicity stunt, Hang Puthea said. This is the first time court officials have been convicted for corruption, but "the whole case is still far from being credible," said Son Chhay, a Cambodian opposition lawmaker.
Cambodia's judiciary is known for being corrupt and bending to political influence. Many Cambodians have lost faith in the system and resort to vigilante justice by lynching suspects before police can arrest them, reports the AP. I.L.