TAKHMAO CITY, Kandal province – Ang Mealaktei, who was ousted as Phnom Penh Municipal Court director last year amid accusations of serious corruption, found an unlikely ally during his embezzlement trial here on Thursday morning: the man tasked with prosecuting him.
Dressed in a crisp pair of orange prison pajamas, Mr. Mealaktei, 60, took the stand at the Kandal Provincial Court and conceded that he was wrong to make personal use of an Audi SUV confiscated from a drug dealer in 2014, but requested that the charge for the crime be downgraded from embezzlement, which carries a maximum prison term of 10 years, to unlawful exploitation, which is punishable by up to five.
And by the time closing arguments rolled around about three hours later, Phnom Penh’s erstwhile top judge—who has been receiving treatment for a slew of ailments at a private health clinic—had apparently won over the prosecutor in charge of his case, Ek Sunreaksmey.
“I support the request to downgrade the charge,” Mr. Sunreaksmey told the court, explaining that he was only “51 percent” happy to make such a decision.
The prosecutor went on to express sympathy for the defendant, pointing out that Mr. Mealaktei had already lost his job and spent five months in prison, and was suffering from hemorrhoids, high blood pressure and liver disease.
“We can’t send to prison a person with these diseases,” he said
Defense lawyer Tep Panha was then given the floor to make his closing arguments, but had little to add.
“I agree with all the points made by the prosecutor,” he said. “My client’s mistake is minor, not serious.”
Earlier in the trial, Mr. Mealaktei admitted he had wrongly appropriated the SUV at the center of the case, even using it to take his family on a holiday. He said it was “no secret” that he had been driving the car, and claimed he used it to surreptitiously enter and exit the municipal courthouse at a time when it was the site of numerous political protests and related arrests.
Contacted after the trial and asked why he had used his concluding remarks to support the downgrading of charges—having initially recommended the embezzlement charge—Mr. Sunreaksmey, the prosecutor, said it was his “right” to do so and declined to comment further.
“If you want to understand more clearly, you can refer to Article 30” of the Code of Criminal Procedure, he said.
Article 30 states, in full: “Every prosecutor shall obey the injunction of his superiors according to the established hierarchy. However, during a hearing, the Prosecutor may freely provide oral remarks according to his conscience. No disciplinary action can be brought against a Prosecutor on the basis of his remarks made during a hearing.”
The prosecution of Mr. Mealaktei has been shrouded in doubt and secrecy from the beginning. After he was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in August, government spokesman Phay Siphan called Mr. Mealaktei “the devil” and said the man’s close friendship with ACU chairman Om Yentieng could complicate the investigation.
During the investigation, an ACU official described Mr. Yentieng’s interrogations of Mr. Mealaktei as “friendly meetings” over lunch.
The official, who has requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, speculated that Mr. Yentieng would ultimately “make a report to Preah In [Prime Minister Hun Sen] saying that Mr. Mealaktei did nothing wrong in his job, and requesting an end to the case because he is his close friend.”
Upon arriving at the courthouse on Thursday, Mr. Mealaktei was escorted from the rear of a prison van by a throng of police officers, who attempted to shield him from photographers. He exited the prison van alone, his hands free, and was followed by pairs of defendants in cuffs.
Two entrances to the court’s ground were guarded by armed military police, and attendees were patted down as they entered the courtroom. Pens and pencils were banned.
As the trial got underway, the prosecutor told Mr. Mealaktei: “You have been a judicial official for a long time; answering these questions should be easy.”
“Please, proceed with the trial. I have never been connected with a crime,” the defendant responded. “I may speak loudly and strongly, but I have a good heart.”
The fall of Mr. Mealaktei, whose lawyer explained that he had been serving the state for 32 years, began in February when Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested in a speech that the Phnom Penh court had taken a $5 million bribe to overturn a decision denying bail to a wealthy couple facing illegal weapons charges stemming from a high-profile assassination.
Mr. Mealaktei was removed from his post the following day and given an unspecified position in the Justice Ministry.
The disgraced judge has not been charged in relation to the prime minister’s claims. However, Brigadier General Pech Prum Mony, a bodyguard and assistant to Mr. Mealaktei, has been convicted of judicial interference, and is also facing charges related to a gift he accepted from the couple that was improperly released on bail.
Sa Sovan, a veteran lawyer, legal professor and former permanent member of Cambodia’s bar association, said he closely monitored Mr. Mealaktei’s trial yesterday to determine whether “corruption was involved” in the handling of his case.
“Ang Mealaktei has committed many injustices over a long period of time,” he said.
Mr. Sovan said the fact that Mr. Mealaktei was not charged in relation to Mr. Hun Sen’s bribery allegations was questionable, as was the integrity of the trial.
“The charge of unlawful exploitation is a misdemeanor—it is not correct for this case,” he said. “In my opinion, this case may have been pre-organized.”