An Australian court on Monday upheld the 14-year prison sentence of a Cambodian-Australian man who was arrested two years ago for smuggling millions of dollars’ worth of heroin from Cambodia to Australia, while Cambodian police said the suspected ringleader of the smuggling operation is still free in Cambodia.
Chhodaphea Kev and Sombath Sok were sentenced to 14 years and nine months in prison by the county court of Victoria, Australia, on May 19 for smuggling 12.34 kg of heroin—valued between $7 million and $13 million—into Australia, according to a summary of the case from the Supreme Court of Victoria.
On Monday, Victoria Court of Appeal Judge Phillip Priest rejected an appeal by Mr. Kev and upheld the original sentence. Mr. Sok did not file an appeal.
“The case against [Mr. Kev] was very strong,” Mr. Priest said in a summary of his decision. “In my view, on the available evidence, his conviction was inevitable.”
While Australian authorities said the case against Mr. Kev and Mr. Sok was open and shut, In Song, the deputy chief of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-drug police, said arresting the suspected Cambodian ringleader of the operation has proven more difficult.
Mr. Song said that after Australian police interrogated Mr. Kev and Mr. Sok, they provided information to Cambodian authorities that allowed them to identify the leader of the smuggling ring. But so far, police have not compiled enough evidence to make an arrest.
“Here in Cambodia, the anti-drug police are watching [the suspect], but we don’t have enough evidence to implicate him,” Mr. Song said.
According to the court’s summary, Mr. Sok arrived in Cambodia in March 2012 for a monthlong visit. While in Cambodia, five packages were sent from the Phnom Penh post office to two separate Melbourne addresses, which Mr. Kev had rented. But customs officials seized four of the packages and found they each contained about 500 yellow sachets labeled “Beauty Star Ginseng Instant Dyeing.”
“Within the sachets was a light brown liquid which contained heroin,” the court summary says. The fifth package was later delivered to Mr. Sok and Mr. Kev at one of the Melbourne addresses, which led to a police investigation and the men’s arrest in April 2012.
Jordana Fayman, Mr. Kev’s lawyer, said Monday she was not in contact with her client and declined to provide more details about the case.
“I haven’t even had a chance to read the judgment,” she said.
The case against Mr. Kev and Mr. Sok had striking similarities to a December 2012 case in which a former Royal Cambodian Armed Forces colonel and a Vietnamese woman were arrested in Phnom Penh for attempting to send heroin to Australia by mail.
Police said at the time that they received a tip that allowed them to intercept the packages at the Phnom Penh post office. The packages contained about 600 small packets labeled as “Korean Red Ginseng Tonic.” The packets held a total of about 12 kg of heroin.
Suo Sarith, 54, and Nguyen Nhu Hanh, 44, were later arrested, and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced both to life in prison for the crime in July 2013.
Mr. Song, the anti-drug police officer, said Monday that Cambodian police believe the 2012 arrests in Australia and Cambodia were part of drug-smuggling operations orchestrated by the same Cambodian man, but refused to identify or provide more details about the suspected ringleader.
Mr. Song added that police have identified other drug mules they suspect are also working for the ringleader and hope that following them will lead to a major arrest.
“Most of the suspects are just hired workers used for smuggling,” he said. “But we are following the suspects until they deliver the drugs…. It is a tactic for arresting the ringleader.”
According to an article Monday in Australian newspaper The Age, Mr. Kev, 40, arrived in Australia in 1988 as a refugee, settling in Sydney. Married with three children, Mr. Kev worked as a machinist before he became involved in drug trafficking, according to the article.
Mr. Sok, 35, arrived in Australia from Cambodia when he was about 16, the article says, adding that his family had filed a previous complaint against him for violent behavior.