More than 220 illegal Chinese immigrants arrested in Phnom Penh in August are scheduled to go to trial today for violating Cambodia’s immigration laws.
Today’s trial—the first time Chinese nationals will be prosecuted for violating Cambodian immigration law—initially received heavy support from some senior Cambodian officials, including Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara.
But some observers say it is little more than a show trial, forced by allegations of government involvement in the smuggling.
“It is such a high-profile case, [the government] won’t back off—they will probably go through the motions of a trial,” said one official from an international anti-trafficking organization. “I think [the government] is quite embarrassed right now.”
In a meeting with US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann Wednesday night, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng acknowledged the involvement of Cambodians in the Chinese smuggling. Senior officials, including a Cambodian diplomat and a top National Police official, were first implicated in the smuggling ring by Chea Sophara in early September.
National Police Chief Hok Lundy defended himself and his police force Thursday, saying, “I am not [uncomfortable] about it because I am innocent and only serving my obligation for the nation.”
But several officials maintain that some in the Cambodia government are facilitating the immigrants’ passage through the country, even providing them with passports and travel documents.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak last week acknowledged the existence of fake passports—mostly Cambodian but some from other countries, including the US—saying they are sold for as much as $10,000.
Khieu Sopheak also said some embassies are giving travel documents to illegal aliens. The Chinese Embassy has denied doing this in the case of the 200-plus Chinese immigrants, though it did provide passports to 13 illegal Chinese deported in February.
The Chinese being tried today also are expected to be deported after serving their sentences, though it is unclear if any jail time will be given. A Chinese Embassy official who said the deportation is being planned by the embassy maintained that jail time would complicate the process.
And the anti-trafficking official said it’s unlikely all the Chinese will be sent back to China.
“Some groups will never be deported if they are the ones with the stronger connections,” the official claimed.
Attempts Sunday to speak with the 187 Chinese men being held at Immigration Police headquarters near Pochentong Airport were unsuccessful. Attempts to speak with the women being held at Foreign Police headquarters also were unsuccessful.
“We don’t want reporters to meet them for fear that [the Chinese] will talk randomly and groundlessly and make the case more difficult to solve,” said Teng Savong, deputy National Police chief and head of the committee investigating the operation.
Municipal Court Chief Prosecutor Kann Chhoeun said Friday the size of the legal case is creating logistical difficulties for court officials. The Chinese will be divided into five groups of about 40 people each, Kann Chheoun said.
“It will take one morning to do the trial because of the size,” he said.
According to Kann Chheoun, the Chinese only will be asked whether they have legal travel documents before being sentenced. Only three of the 225 Chinese arrested in a Tuol Kok house had passports, police said.
The Chinese face three to six months in jail for violating Article 29 of Cambodia’s Immigration Law which prohibits entering the country without papers.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)