An assistant at the Council for the Development of Cambodia walked free on Monday despite being found guilty of demanding bribes to process applications, less than a week after two City Hall officials were also freed despite being found guilty of pocketing public funds.
Chhim Piseth, an assistant to an unspecified deputy secretary-general at the council, which approves foreign investment projects, was charged in April with misappropriation of public funds after being accused of only stamping documents after receiving payments.
At the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday, Presiding Judge Ros Piseth handed Mr. Piseth a two-year suspended sentence. No reason was given for freeing Mr. Piseth, who had been released on bail soon after his arrest.
The judge fined him 4 million riel, or about $1,000. But a bail payment of 20 million riel, or about $5,000, was returned to him.
The judge added that authorities had earlier confiscated $2,750 from Mr. Piseth, and that $1,500 of it would be repaid to those who had paid the money as bribes, and the remaining $1,250 would be handed over to the state.
Om Yentieng, head of the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit, which made the arrest after businesses started complaining that Mr. Piseth would pick fault in applications until a kickback was made, said the decision to release the official was the court’s.
“I am not the court,” Mr. Yentieng said. “The court is another power and how can you let me control them?”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said each case was based on its merits, regardless of the status of the defendants, and convicted officials could be productive in the outside world.
“Sometimes we see the situation where the offense is misappropriation of public funds, but the judge has facts where he thinks he can give mitigating circumstances to that person,” Mr. Malin said. “For example, if he is sentenced to prison, benefits can be lost and if you let him stay outside, he can do other social work based on his high ability and skill.”
Mr. Piseth’s release comes after two City Hall officials, Roth Borey, who served as head of the municipality’s planning and investment division, and Mai Vannarum, who worked in the same department, were freed on Wednesday despite being handed two-year prison sentences by Judge Piseth for misappropriating public funds in August 2015. The judge suspended the remainder of the sentences—although the pair had only been in provisional detention since March 2—and gave no explanation for their release. Cambodia is regularly ranked by Transparency International as among the most corrupt countries in the world.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, voiced concerns about the development council case.
“We have lot of questions about the court’s handling of this case, and it sends the wrong message,” he said in an email. “Corruption is a crime and indeed a serious problem Cambodia has been facing. We expect law enforcement agencies, especially the court, to strictly enforce the law and punish corrupt officials according to the anti-corruption law.”
(Additional reporting by George Wright)