Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday tried four high-ranking members of Chea Sim’s inner circle who face charges of fraud for allegedly tricking the Senate president into signing falsified contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Testifying in front of the court, all four—Pheng Kunthea Borey, Chan Kosal, Ponlork Ho and Khieu Bora—denied any wrongdoing and laid blame on the Malaysian firm behind the contracts, worth in total more than $500 million. Occasionally breaking into tears, former protocol chief Ms. Kunthea Borey, 56, insisted she did nothing wrong and had only her country in mind when she passed the contracts along to Mr. Sim.
“I worked for Samdech Chea Sim for more than 30 years. I always want to protect the honor of Samdech Chea Sim,” she said. “I did this to help Cambodia and Cambodians.”
Ms. Kunthea Borey said that she looked over the contracts and noticed irregularities, chief among them that Mr. Sim was obliged to pay for the projects despite an understanding that the cost would be footed by the Malaysian firm. When she raised the topic with Mr. Kosal, 60, a former adviser, he told her not to be concerned and that he would pay the money, not Mr. Sim.
In court yesterday, Mr. Kosal denied the account, saying he trusted the contracts because they had been passed on by Mr. Ho, another former adviser who had, by the time of the crimes, built up a close relationship with seven Malaysian tycoons involved in the case.
“Not only did I not get money for these projects, I moreover spent my own,” said Mr. Kosal, who estimated that he spent approximately $200,000 of his own money on flying in and accommodating the group when they visited to discuss the five projects in question, and beginning construction on one of the projects.
Referring to the Malaysians only by their first names, Mr. Ho explained how, over the years, he cultivated a close relationship with the Malaysians and grew to trust them. Mr. Kosal identified a man, Armin, as owner of the project.
When the scandal broke in October, the court identified an automotive repair company, Fasfik Group, as being one of the companies involved.
According to an October posting on the website of Armin Baniaz Pahamin, managing director of Fasfik Group, he admitted being involved in the project, but he denied that his company was guilty of fraud.
Mr. Ho yesterday also explained that the company promised him 10 percent commission upon completion of the projects, which included schools and hospitals in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap province, and a $90 million road project in Svay Rieng province.
“But I never got any money from these projects,” he said, contradicting statements he gave to military police upon his arrest. In those statements, according to the deputy prosecutor and judge, Mr. Ho earned tens of thousands of dollars from helping arrange the contracts.
Mr. Kosal denied he had any intention of tricking Mr. Sim, but confessed to a lesser charge of illegal use of a uniform. On the website of the firm Fasfik Group, Mr. Ho could be seen posing in the uniform of a three-star police general.
“I just took the photo as a souvenir,” Mr. Ho explained, noting that his rank as an adviser in the Ministry of Interior is equivalent to that of a secretary of state.
Tep Monycheath, a defense lawyer for Mr. Kosal and Mr. Bora and one of 11 defense attorneys handling the case, begged the court for leniency.
“Their actions did not make Chea Sim lose any money. I recognize that all of the suspects affected his honor or reputation, but all four suspects just worked to help the country. It was the foreigners who were cheating Cambodians. But the court did not arrest any of the Malaysians, just punished Khmer,” he said.
Nach Try, lawyer for Mr. Sim’s bodyguard chief, who is serving as the complainant, disputed the defense’s account.
“All four of them claim to be good people, innocent. But Samdech Chea Sim is the real victim of this case…even though he did not lose the money, he lost his honor and reputation,” he said.
“He agreed to sign the document because he trusted his subordinates and advisers…but everything was to cheat him.”
Mr. Try requested that the four accused be punished to the fullest extent of the law and levied with a token fine of 9,000 riel, or about $2.25, apiece. If found guilty, they could each face five years’ imprisonment.
Deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth said he doubted the four were innocent.
“All of the suspects deny they would commit the crimes…. But they all provide the answers of the accused…. I request the judge punish according to full extent of law.”
A verdict will be announced on Tuesday.