The trial of a British entrepreneur accused of fraud was delayed again at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday, while the defendant alleged he received an offer to buy his freedom for $1 million.
For 32 months, Gregg Fryett has been sent back and forth between the municipal, appeal and supreme courts, with proceedings punctuated by postponements, walkouts and last-minute changes of lawyers.
The case—which has unearthed official allegations of serious malfeasance by Ang Mealaktei, the former Phnom Penh court director charged with corruption in a separate case—appears to have descended into a game of legal chess.
During a hearing last month, Mr. Fryett’s attorney, Tuot Lux, recused himself from the case, citing a conflict of interest. The defendant has since contracted Kao Soupha, a former lawyer for Heng Pov, who is serving a nearly 100-year sentence for a raft of crimes committed while chief of the Phnom Penh police in the early 2000s.
But Mr. Soupha did not attend Wednesday’s hearing, saying he was not invited by the court. Mr. Fryett was instead represented by West Nareth Hib, who was appointed by the court after a November 6 deadline passed for new counsel to replace Mr. Lux.
Mr. Fryett’s legal team on Wednesday requested a postponement to study the case file, which Mr. Nareth Hib said “had made him dizzy” and “could nearly fill a cabinet.” The prosecution did not object, and Presiding Judge Chhuon Sokreasey agreed to adjourn until January 20. “This case is big,” the judge reasoned.
“That’s two more months I have to be in jail,” objected Mr. Fryett, who believes he has the legal ammunition to blow the prosecution’s argument apart.
Asked by Judge Sokreasey how long his legal team would need to get up to speed, the defendant replied: “We have new evidence that shows that the investigation by Ang Mealaktei was based on corruption and therefore I want to…” But he was cut off by Sao Noeun, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who said: “Answer the question you were asked.”
Mr. Fryett said he did not know how long they would need to prepare, and as he proceeded to request bail, the three judges hurried out of the courtroom.
“What just happened here?” the defendant said afterward. “They don’t want to listen to me. They know they are in deep trouble. This entire prosecution is unlawful and our continued detention is unlawful.”
Mr. Fryett, whose U.K.-based company had come under investigation by the British government’s Serious Fraud Office, was arrested in 2013 for allegedly forging documents to acquire 6,079 hectares of land in Banteay Meanchey province for a jatropha plantation in 2009. He has maintained that he is the victim of a nefarious plot by Mr. Mealaktei and three other officials to seize hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery purchased to cultivate and process jatropha, which can be converted into biofuel.
Mr. Fryett’s claims were backed up by the provincial governor, Oung Oeun, in a 2012 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which supports the prosecution and has been following the case closely.
Earlier this week, Mr. Fryett made public a series of emails he exchanged with David Chanaiwa, a Cambodian-American attorney working at Mr. Lux’s law firm, that the defendant claims include an attempt to extort $1 million.
The subject line of an October 3 email from Mr. Chanaiwa—who became friends with Mr. Fryett and acted as his “attorney on the inside” while serving a 22-month prison sentence for assault—reads: “1M need for service fee to result all the issue matter pertaining to your matter.”
“The amount need to be up front and I will process everything through,” Mr. Chanaiwa writes in the email.
In a follow-up email, Mr. Chanaiwa writes: “Lux is work hard with the ACU” and “Everything is secretly maneuving [sic].”
“Here we have evidence that someone is trying to shut this case down outside of court,” Mr. Fryett said of the alleged extortion attempt outside the courtroom on Wednesday. “We can’t be sure who the source is, but this demonstrates clearly that this is a case of arrest and ransom.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Chanaiwa confirmed the emails were genuine, but claimed the $1 million was owed to him by Mr. Fryett for the legal work he had already done for the accused fraudster. Mr. Lux, he said, had been speaking with the ACU only in an attempt to find out what moves the prosecution was set to make.
“This is money that he agreed to pay me for my services while we were inside [prison],” Mr. Chanaiwa said, dismissing suggestions that he was soliciting a bribe on behalf of a judicial official.
“No one ever asked me for money. No one wanted to talk to me about Gregg’s case. That’s how scared everyone is. Even the judge —if I wanted to talk to him, I bet he would not talk to me, either. If I wanted to talk to the prosecutor, nope,” he said.
“This case is not a normal case.”