Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday cleared former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov of kidnapping four South Korean businessmen and holding them for ransom in September 2005.
Following a four-hour trial, presiding Judge Iv Kim Sry also acquitted former municipal anti-human trafficking department police chief Meng Say of the same charges, potentially allowing the 46-year-old to walk free.
Iv Kim Sry did not explain his reasons for dropping the charges against the pair on announcing his verdict.
Authorities had alleged that Heng Pov, 49, and Meng Say had demanded $11,000 from a South Korean national in return for releasing him and three other South Koreans arrested on suspicion of human trafficking. The men, who reportedly ran a mail-order bride business for South Koreans seeking Cambodian wives, were released within 48 hours, officials said.
Three months to the day after his dramatic deportation from Malaysia, Heng Pov, who is currently serving an 18-year prison sentence for the 2003 murder of municipal court Judge Sok Sethamony, appeared alert and attentive in court and occasionally smiled.
Speaking to a crowd of hundreds in the 15-minute pause prior to the verdict’s announcement, Heng Pov declined to answer questions but delivered a brief speech.
“If there is enough evidence to prove that I committed crimes, don’t sentence me to 18 years. Put me in for life,” he said, denying that he had been responsible for killing Sok Sethamony.
“I wasn’t stupid enough to kill him,” he said.
Heng Pov also said he was keen to see the Cambodian judiciary reformed. “So long as I have life, I will call for court reform,” he said.
According to written testimony from Yon Ye, one of Meng Say’s former deputies, Heng Pov and Meng Say had discussed collecting the ransom in return for releasing the South Koreans.
But Heng Pov told the court that, after investigating the case, he concluded Yon Ye had himself collected the money while posing as Meng Say.
Prosecutor Sok Roeun asked Meng Say why, if he was innocent, he had been named by one of the South Koreans in a Sept 30, 2005 complaint.
“I didn’t even see that money,” replied Meng Say, who was arrested and charged with the kidnapping in August 2006.
Contacted after the trial, Sok Roeun declined to discuss the hearing.
Muong Sokun, defense lawyer for Meng Say, said his client would be free in 24 hours if the prosecution does not appeal the ruling.
Muong Sokun said he did not anticipate an appeal and that the court was right to acquit his client.
“There was enough transparency and justice,” he said. “This is a society that has the rule of law.”
Heng Pov and Meng Say briefly embraced after the verdict was announced.
Kim In-kook, the second secretary at the South Korean Embassy, declined to comment on the proceedings.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Meng Say will not be allowed to return to work if he is released.
“Never. No way,” he said, adding that the ministry was displeased by the acquittals. “There should be an appeal. We’re disappointed about this,” he said.
Interior Ministry Penal Police Chief Mok Chito, a longtime rival of Heng Pov, declined comment.
“It is up to the court,” he said. “When the court says so, it must be so.”
The charge of kidnapping and extortion, which carries possible penalties of three to five years in jail, is the least serious of the ones filed against Heng Pov since his five-month flight from justice began in July.
The court is scheduled today to try Heng Pov for the alleged illegal confinement of two women in police custody in March 2005.
On Tuesday, the court will try Heng Pov for the attempted murder of Kim Daravuth, a former official of state-run Electricite du Cambodge who was shot three times in the neck in November 2005.
But Heng Pov’s controversial deportation from Malaysia, from where he had been seeking political asylum, is also receiving legal scrutiny.
Malaysia’s Federal Court is scheduled to hear Wednesday contempt of court proceedings against three Malaysian officials who could face jail time and fines over accusations that they lied in court and engineered Heng Pov’s premature deportation.
Cambodian and Malaysian officials have denied any wrongdoing in the case.
Karpal Singh, a lawmaker in Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party, said Tuesday that he intends in the next three weeks to question Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in parliament over the deportation.
“I will be asking him how the matter came about,” he said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur. “What was done was wrong. It was not to have been done.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the acquittal may have been an attempt to avoid the appearance that Heng Pov’s convictions are all foregone conclusions.
“Maybe they’re just trying to make everyone look surprised,” he said.
“What was happening is just a show case and will not demonstrate the independence of the court,” he added.