≈The Supreme Council of Magistracy, the body charged with overseeing the nation’s judiciary, has begun an investigation into alleged improprieties by suspended Kompong Speu Provincial Prosecutor Kong Set, officials said Monday.
Hing Thirith, a prosecutor at the Supreme Court, confirmed Monday that he is heading an investigation into Mr Set’s activities that was ordered by the Supreme Council’s Disciplinary Council. He declined, however, to provide details about his work while the investigation is ongoing, citing Supreme Council policy.
He did say that his team, which includes another Supreme Court prosecutor, Chey Sophal, are investigating to be “clear” about Mr Set’s alleged improprieties, despite a probe having already been carried out last year by the Justice Ministry.
“The ministry worked separately and the Disciplinary Council ordered [us] to investigate clearly,” Mr Thirith said by telephone.
According to the Justice Ministry’s findings, which were submitted to the Supreme Council on Dec 5 of last year, Mr Set’s “irregularities” included wrongful release of suspects, the improper charging of police officers, and the extortion of monthly kickbacks of between $25 and $50 from unlicensed gasoline vendors on National Road 4.
The findings also claim that Mr Set ordered an Environment Ministry official to allow the transportation of 27 cubic meters of illegally logged timber from the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary for the construction of the prosecutor’s Phnom Penh house.
Mr Set was also suspended by Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana in December.
Justice Ministry Inspector-General So Chanthy, who led the ministry’s investigation of Mr Set, declined to comment on Monday. “We already finished our job,” he said.
A woman answering Mr Set’s phone Monday said he was not available to speak with a reporter. The embattled prosecutor has previously denied all allegations against him, claiming that he was unfairly targeted after he caught Phnom Aural officials engaging in illegal logging.
Kompong Speu Provincial Court Director Khlot Pich said Monday that three officials from the Supreme Council of Magistracy spoke on Friday with two court clerks who had worked for Mr Set, but he was not sure what the two officials had been asked.
“They came down on Friday, talking to police and the court,” Judge Pich said. “I saw them asking court clerks, villagers and gasoline vendors.”
Kompong Speu provincial police chief Keo Pisey said he was too busy Monday to talk about the case and hung up his phone.
Mr Thirith, the lead investigator, already has an unusual connection to Mr Set concerning their respective roles in the highly controversial case against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men convicted of killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.
Then an investigating judge for the Phnom Penh court, Mr Thirith freed the two suspects, citing a lack of evidence, in a decision applauded by rights groups. His decision was swiftly overruled on appeal and Mr Thirith found himself transferred to the Stung Treng court not long after.
Mr Set, on the other hand, was the judge that ultimately ended up convicting Mr Samnang and Mr Sam Oeun, sentencing them to 20 years each in prison. The conviction was decried as a grave injustice by many, who cited mountains of evidence showing that the pair very likely had nothing to do with the assassination.
The two men were eventually released on bail last year after the Supreme Court ordered the case reinvestigated.
Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent legal aid attorney who is not related to the Chea Vichea suspect of the same name, said that he welcomed an investigation into corruption in the judiciary.
He also said that he thought Mr Thirith may be the best possible choice among prosecutors to handle such a matter.
“Among the prosecutors, I give him the highest value—his stance is good. But independent or not, I don’t know, because now no one is independent,” Mr Sam Oeun said, adding that Mr Thirith might be “scared” after being abruptly transferred following his ruling in the Chea Vichea case.