Phnom Penh Municipal authorities on Wednesday called for the punishment of four Municipal Court officials—including two judges—accusing them of taking bribes in exchange for the illegal release of six suspected criminals.
In a news conference Wednesday evening—in which police handed out 20,000 riel [approximately $5] to reporters—Municipal Police Commissioner Heng Pov said that judges Kong Sarith and Ham Mengse and deputy prosecutors Khut Sopheang and Siem Sok Aun could face charges for receiving bribes, corruption and acting as accomplices to a crime.
“Our evidence is overwhelming,” Heng Pov alleged, adding that the victims of criminals illegally released by the Municipal Court should also file complaints against the judges and deputy prosecutors.
While judges and prosecutors are protected from legal prosecution, they can be disciplined by the Supreme Council of Magistracy, according to the Constitution.
But, Heng Pov said: “Under Article 31 [of the Constitution], everyone is equal in front of the law.”
Municipal police presented to reporters five alleged perpetrators and accomplices to armed robberies—three men, Srei Chan Thoeun, 33, Choeung Thy, 24, and Heng Yuthy, 23, and two women, Yeoun Phary, 22, and Khim Sotha, 19—all of whom had allegedly been illegally freed by the court.
Heng Pov named a sixth suspect, Chheng Vong You, 22, who was not present.
Chheng Vong You had signed a confession, stating that his uncle paid $16,000 to Kong Sarith and Siem Sok Aun for his release on Dec 24, 2003, Heng Pov said.
A statement issued by the Phnom Penh Municipality, and broadcast on national television, earlier Wednesday called for police and military police to re-arrest the six suspects freed by the courts.
Heng Pov, however, said the six had not been re-arrested, but would merely be detained at Municipal Police headquarters for questioning as witnesses in an investigation into the judges and prosecutors.
The police commissioner said that in 2004 more than 200 suspects were illegally released by the Municipal Court. So far in 2005, he said, 50 people have been released illegally.
But asked whether more Municipal Court officials would be investigated, he responded: “We do not know about other judges and prosecutors.”
“The entire court is not wrong, it’s just individuals who are bad,” he added.
The large number of reported illegal releases by the court prompted Prime Minister Hun Sen to order a probe, Heng Pov said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen was completely shocked and felt pity toward the victims’ families when the suspects were released illegally. So he contacted the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the Ministry of Justice and the Phnom Penh Court to re-examine the report of illegal releases,” Heng Pov said.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vattana confirmed Wednesday that he received Hun Sen’s order.
Though a member of the Supreme Council of Magistracy, Ang Vong Vattana declined to speculate about the possible punishment the judges and prosecutors would receive.
“Just wait and see. It depends on the disciplinary council of the Supreme Council of Magistracy to consider this matter,” he said. Punishment, he said “depends on the severity of their mistakes.”
Ang Vong Vattana added that the six suspected perpetrators and accomplices to armed robberies should be re-charged for their alleged crimes.
“If they are not charged for the same case, they should be charged with another crime,” he said.
Contacted by phone late Wednesday, Siem Sok Aun denied the charges of bribery and defended the release of the suspects.
As a trial prosecutor, he said, he is not responsible for charging the suspects.
In addition, all of his actions are overseen by the court’s chief prosecutor, Ouk Savouth.
“When I release the suspects, the chief prosecutor knows it,” Siem Sok Aun said. “[Ouk Savouth] ought to appeal to the Appeals Court if he [believes] that the release was not in accordance with the law. Why did he not appeal?”
He added that he did not receive any of the $16,000 from suspect Chheng Vong You’s uncle, as Heng Pov alleged.
“This is defamatory,” Siem Sok Aun said. “I have never, ever received a large amount of money like this. If I took it, I would no longer be driving an old car. I would have traded it in for a good, new car a long time ago.”