Cambodian authorities in Malaysia on Thursday took custody of fugitive former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov and returned him in handcuffs to Cambodia, officials and his lawyer said.
The arrest followed a decision by the Malaysian Court of Appeal which ruled Thursday morning that the country’s immigration authorities should have discretion in deciding whether to deport Heng Pov either to Singapore, as the High Court ruled Dec 15, or to Cambodia.
A private plane belonging to an unidentified Cambodian official and carrying Heng Pov touched town down at 1:25 pm at Phnom Penh’s military airbase, officials said.
Heng Pov was then questioned at Phnom Penh Municipal Court before being taken to Prey Sar prison to begin his 18-year sentence for the 2003 murder of Judge Sok Sethamony.
Roadblocks were set up outside the court, and dozens of intervention police officers armed with tear gas, gas masks and AK-47s stood guard.
After questioning, Heng Pov was driven away in a police vehicle containing his arch nemesis, Interior Ministry Penal Police Chief Mok Chito.
“The mission is complete and we are happy,” Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said. “We are happy to be implementing what the court prescribed.”
Heng Pov’s abrupt reversal of fortune ended a five-month odyssey during which he evaded capture while leveling charges abroad of corruption and murder at the highest levels of the Cambodian government.
Court Director Chiv Kheng said he briefly questioned Heng Pov about the murder of Sok Sethamony and then ordered his detention.
“He has denied that he killed Sok Sethamony but we have firm evidence,” Chiv Kheng said. “He also has many stories to tell me but I will ask him later,” he added, though he declined to elaborate on the content of Heng Pov’s comments.
Prior to deportation, Heng Pov told reporters in Kuala Lumpur that he would be killed if he returned to Cambodia.
“In Cambodia I can die because I have a political problem with the government,” the Associated Press quoted Heng Pov as saying. “If you send me I sure will die, 100 percent.”
After the verdict in Malaysia, Heng Pov’s wife Ngin Sotheavy held Heng Pov’s limp hand and wailed in sorrow as he was led to a van that took him to the airport, AP reported.
“Please tell the world. Don’t send my husband to Cambodia,” she said. “Let him go to Finland.”
Finland’s Ambassador to Malaysia Lauri Korpinen said his country, which earlier this month issued a entry visa to Heng Pov, is concerned for Heng Pov’s safety.
“One of the reasons the visa was issued was humanitarian and I think that we’re not the only ones [worried],” the ambassador said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur. “We are regretting the situation and that is all.”
Khieu Sopheak said Heng Pov will be treated in accordance with the law.
“The treatment of Heng Pov is no different from the others [in prison],” he said. “Of course Heng Pov will be treated very well.”
Thursday’s ruling in Malaysia overturned a decision by the High Court, which had cited shortcomings in the Cambodian legal system and ruled that Heng Pov should be deported to Singapore, not Cambodia.
The Malaysian Court of Appeal held that the High Court’s decision on Heng Pov had infringed on the discretion of immigration authorities, said Heng Pov’s Malaysian lawyer N Sivananthan, who denounced the ruling.
N Sivananthan said by telephone that he had been in the process of seeking a stay on the deportation when Mohd Hanafiah bin Zakaria, deputy head of prosecution in the Malaysian Attorney General’s Chambers, informed him that Heng Pov had already been sent home.
“I am ashamed that this could happen in Malaysia,” he said by telephone by Kuala Lumpur.
Immediately after the ruling, immigration authorities handed Heng Pov over to Cambodian officials in Kuala Lumpur who drove him to a waiting plane, he said.
N Sivananthan said this was illegal, as in court documents the immigration department had said no decision as to how to deport Heng Pov had been made.
Heng Pov’s wife has complained to Malaysian police that both Mohd Hanafiah bin Zakaria and Ishak Haji Mohamed, director of enforcement in the Malaysian immigration department, were “in cahoots” with the Cambodian government, N Sivananthan said.
“In the police report, what we’re suggesting is that both the individuals [have] been working together with the Cambodian government for their own personal gain,” N Sivananthan alleged.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap dismissed the allegation that Malaysian officials had been compromised by “personal gain.”
“The accusation is not acceptable,” he said.
A Malaysian Embassy spokesman in Phnom Penh could not be reached for comment.
In an August interview with the French magazine L’Express, Heng Pov made accusations of drug trafficking, grenade attacks and assassination against top Cambodian officials.
Heng Pov has claimed to have information about the 2004 murder of Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea and the 1997 grenade attack on a demonstration outside the National Assembly.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy said Thursday that Heng Pov will now be silenced.
“I think we risk losing a precious witness,” Sam Rainsy said.
“I think it is not a step forward but a step backward for Cambodian justice.”
Khieu Sopheak said none of Heng Pov’s claims will be investigated.
“What Heng Pov said was in exchange for political asylum,” Khieu Sopheak maintained.
“When you arrest a suspect…he points the finger to anybody,” he added.
Both the US Embassy and the UN Center for Human Rights said Heng Pov should be treated in accordance with the law.
“As with any other Cambodian citizen, Heng Pov should receive all the procedural guarantees provided under the Constitution and international human rights law,” the UN Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
“In most cases in Cambodia, these basic guarantees are not observed,” it added.
(Additional reporting Saing Soenthrith)