Anti-narcotics officials say they are growing more disillusioned with the fight against drug trafficking after four men convicted of being involved in the country’s third-largest marijuana bust were fined only $2,500 each.
The four were quietly tried, fined 10 million riel each and released from Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Oct 6 for their part in the attempted smuggling earlier this year of 4.5 tons of marijuana, according to court records and officials. The marijuana had been seized by authorities in Sihanoukville in April and later burned amid fanfare in a public ceremony attended by diplomats.
“We sent the four to trial, and they were released by the courts because [the courts] said there was not enough evidence,” complained Khieu Sopheak, deputy secretary general of the National Authority to Combat Drugs. “Police have made arrests in more than one hundred cases, and in nearly all one hundred cases [the suspects] have been released because the courts say there was not enough evidence.” He said the latest decision was particularly frustrating.
Drug trafficking or conspiring to traffick can carry prison sentences of up to 20 years, according to Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
Municipal Court Judge Thong Ol declined Wednesday to say why the four were only fined. “I do everything by the law, and if [the police] are not happy with what I do, they can appeal.”
But Sok Sam Oeun said only those convicted or the prosecuting judge could appeal, not the police.
Municipal Court deputy chief prosecutor Yet Chakriyar confirmed at a drug law enforcement workshop this week that the four drug smugglers were set free.
He defended the judge’s decision, maintaining that the four “only received a percentage of the deal” and were not the ringleaders.
“The judge has the right to punish the suspects by fining them. The law has been written that way. Some people the judge can fine, and some people the judge punishes with jail,” said Yet Chakriya. “There was no lack of evidence to convict the four suspects. The judge decided to fine them.”
The alleged ringleader, Touch Pov, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in jail, Yet Chakriya said. That sentence couldn’t immediately be confirmed in court records.
Court officials acknowledged that Touch Pov is at large, as well as two other suspects—a Ministry of Agriculture official and an RCAF soldier based in Koh Kong. According to military and interior police sources, Touch Pov is an ethnic Chinese working with a group of traffickers from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
According to recent court documents, the four fined and released were Yim Singhean, 42, a Koh Kong police officer; Kok Ly, 25, a Phnom Penh police officer; Va Udom, 33, a Phnom Penh military police officer who had been identified as Pen Udom in police and court documents earlier this year; and Heng Dararith, 33, a civilian who reportedly helped store the marijuana in Phnom Penh.
British Ambassador George Edgar said Wednesday the embassy had yet to be informed of the court ruling but would be seeking more information from authorities because the marijuana haul was destined for Britain, according to police.
He declined to comment on the court’s decision until official notification. But of enforcement in general, Edgar said, “We would like to see the Cambodian authorities taking firm measures to ensure [drug shipments bound for Britain] do not happen again.”
Another Western diplomat said Tuesday that the court was sending the “wrong message” to drug traffickers and producers by only fining the four men. The diplomat said the court release also was inconsistent with the government’s pledge to stop Cambodia’s development as a major drug transit and production point in Southeast Asia.
“With the situation in Cambodia, this is not a sign [the government] wants to send. It is also not consistent with public statements made by the Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng,” said the diplomat.
Sim Hong, deputy military police commander for Phnom Penh, who led the arrests of the four suspects, said he could not comment on the decision of the court. “The courts are an independent institution, and I dare not speak about their decision to free the four men involved in the 4.5 tons of marijuana,” he said.
Skadavy Mathly Roun, adviser to Sar Kheng and the National Authority to Combat Drugs, said Monday that he was not surprised by the court’s ruling. He said many drug peddlers have been brought to court then freed.
“It is always like that…each time always a lack of evidence,” he said, adding it is only poor drug dealers who cannot afford to pay the bribes necessary for their freedom.
“I don’t know how we can punish criminals when the courts free them….We have enough evidence,” said Skadavy Mathly Roun. “The laws already are good but the problem is the courts.”
Khieu Sopheak, however, disagreed, saying the laws penalizing drug trafficking need to be stronger. The practice of only fining suspects clearly is “influencing people to deal in drugs,” he said.
“International drug dealers use Cambodia as a transit base because the laws are very loose and there is no prison penalty. They can be caught with 10 kilograms of opium and know they only face a fine of 10 million riel,” He said the law should be strengthened to include life sentences for drug trafficking. He noted that some countries in the region give death sentences to drug traffickers.
Sok Sam Oeun of the Cambodian Defenders Project argued that the country’s anti-drugs law is adequate.
However, it is up to the judges to implement the provisions for punishment allowed by the law, he said.
“This is not a problem with the rule of law. But rather with the rule of bad law.”