TAKHMAO CITY, Kandal province – Disgraced former Phnom Penh court director Ang Mealaktei was on Friday handed a two-year jail term for making personal use of an Audi SUV confiscated from a drug dealer in 2014, dodging more serious embezzlement charges in a case that a government spokesman described as rife with “irregularities.”
Mr. Mealaktei, who was ousted as Phnom Penh’s top judge last year amid accusations of serious corruption at the municipal court leveled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, admitted during his trial to using the car to commute to work and take his family on a holiday, but appealed for leniency, saying he had a “good heart.”
The 60-year-old urged the court to downgrade the charge against him from embezzlement, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to unlawful exploitation, which is punishable by up to five. He also enjoyed the support of deputy prosecutor Ek Sunreaksmey, who made such an impassioned case in Mr. Mealaktei’s defense—citing the erstwhile judge’s hemorrhoids and joblessness—that his own lawyer had little to add.
Yesterday afternoon, Presiding Judge Nguon Vuthy announced that the defendant would be spared the embezzlement charge and sent to prison for just two years for unlawful exploitation, with another year of the sentence suspended.
“The court sentences Mr. Ang Mealaktei to three years, but will enforce a jail term of only two years and a fine of five million riel,” or about $1,250, Judge Vuthy said.
In explaining his decision, the judge noted that the former court director never damaged the Audi in question, nor made any attempt to register the vehicle in his name.
Hurried out of the courthouse and escorted into a prison van, Mr. Mealaktei did not answer questions from reporters. His lawyer, Tep Panha, declined to comment on the ruling. “I will discuss with my client whether to appeal or not appeal,” he said.
Mr. Sunreaksmey, the deputy prosecutor, also declined to provide comment.
The announcement that Mr. Mealaktei had been fired from the Phnom Penh court was made just hours after the prime minister, in a public speech, suggested that court officials took a multimillion-dollar bribe in a high-profile case.
But since he was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in August, the case against him has been shrouded in secrecy and accusations of interference. At the time, government spokesman Phay Siphan called Mr. Mealaktei “the devil” and said the judge’s close friendship with ACU chairman Om Yentieng could bias the investigation.
An ACU official described Mr. Yentieng’s interrogations of Mr. Mealaktei as “friendly meetings” over lunch.
Contacted yesterday, Mr. Siphan said he was “not satisfied” with the decision to send Mr. Mealaktei to prison for only two years and said proceedings had been punctuated with “irregularities.”
Asked to elaborate, the spokesman said, “I don’t accuse anyone,” but singled out the prosecution’s actions as suspicious.
“The prosecutor asked the judge to make it [the sentence] lighter,” he said of Mr. Sunreaksmey. “Prosecutors are supposed to protect the public interest.”
“It’s a big question mark,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said Mr. Mealaktei’s relatively light sentence was unjust, but not surprising in view of the country’s notoriously corrupt judiciary.
“I think the court changed the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor because Mr. Ang Mealaktei is the former director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. If this case involved a normal person, the court would have convicted him of a felony,” he said.
Mr. Yentieng, the ACU chairman, declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Ben Woods)