sihanoukville – Three government officials including Customs Director In Saroeun have been charged in connection with the toxic-waste scandal here but have been released on bail, the investigating judge said Friday.
Six more officials from Customs, Economic Police and Border Police will be questioned Thursday and possibly charged as the probe into the dumping of mercury-tainted waste outside this seaside resort town continues, Judge Huon Mony said.
The three, who are accused in arrest warrants of causing damage to life, property and the environment, are the first government officials charged in the two-month-old case. In addition to In Saroeun, those charged were Lonh Vannak of the customs’ pricing department and Peng Chheng, an official with Camcontrol, in charge of product inspection.
Until the arrests, only an import company manager named Sam Moeurn had been charged in the case, although about 100 government officials had been suspended. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has maintained lower-level government officials are being made scapegoats to protect superiors.
Two Taiwanese men also are being sought in the case.
Court documents obtained from the January questioning of the officials charged indicate that they were in part responsible for allowing the shipment to be unloaded and transported from the port. Documents also show the customs tax on the waste was inexplicably increased from about $28,000 to $67,000 and the initial approval of 50 trucks to transport the nearly 3,000 tons of waste was exceeded.
“The court understands that In Saroeun, Peng Chheng and Lonh Vannak are directly involved” in the case, Huon Mony said.
Arrest warrants for the three were issued Jan 28 by prosecutor Mam Muth. They were brought to Sihanoukville court with their lawyers Feb 5, said Huon Mony, who last week said he would discuss the case only in person.
Huon Mony said the three were granted bail after their lawyers assured the court that they would appear in court if summoned. “Although those persons are outside on bail, it doesn’t mean they are exonerated,” Huon Mony said.
Two Licadho human rights workers arrested in connection with riots in Sihanoukville over the toxic-waste scandal were in prison for about a month before an appeals court finally ordered their release on bail.
The three government officials charged could not be reached for comment Sunday.
But under court questioning on Jan 6, In Saroeun said that he gave his approval for the waste to be unloaded on Dec 4, “as I worried about the delay of the unloading, which could affect the benefit of the [import] company.” The waste from Taiwan arrived on Nov 30.
In other documents, In Saroeun justified his decision to allow the unloading of the waste by noting that the Ministry of Industry tested samples and concluded the waste contained materials that could be made into cement and ceramics. The Ministry of Industry does not have the equipment necessary to analyze whether something is toxic. Peng Chheng, a senior official with Camcontrol, a part of the Commerce Ministry, said under questioning Jan 7 that he assigned an assistant to examine the goods before they were unloaded.
But, according to his statement, he gave his permission for 50 trucks to transport the waste to the dump site before receiving the inspection report. His statement indicates he felt pressured by Sam Moeurn, the importer, to allow the goods through, and that he also had reviewed other documents including the approval by In Saroeun.
“The work I did was because I was forced to do it by the goods owner [Sam Moeurn of Muth Vuthy Import Co],” Peng Chheng said. “I didn’t accept a bribe from the company.”
Lonh Vannak, of Customs’ pricing department, said under questioning on Jan 6 that Sam Moeurn first approached him on Nov 30 to find out how much in custom taxes he needed to pay. At that time, “we decided to charge him $10 per ton.”
“On Dec 3, the director asked me to bring the cement for a test at the Ministry of Industry. After the test, Industry told us that the cement was all right. An hour later, the director told [us] to change the price from $10 to $24 [per ton].” Based on about 2,800 tons of material, the tax was raised from about $28,000 to $67,000.
The documents do not explain why the tax was increased. The documents also mention a 5 percent fine, but don’t say exactly how it was applied. Other documents show that the 50 trucks weren’t enough to transport all the waste, and that officials later gave their approval for more trucks to be used. (Additional reporting by Jeff Smith)