The disgraced former director of Koh Kong’s provincial agriculture department will not be prosecuted despite admitting to profiting from the illegal sale of state land, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said on Monday.
A ministry investigation sparked by a complaint from six provincial agriculture officials in May found that Meas Sopheap, then the department director, had sold a 3.7-hectare plot of unused department land in Khemara Phoumint City for $320,000.
“Mr. Meas Sopheap has confessed that he did indeed sell the state land, and he has now returned the land to the state,” said Mr. Sokhon, the minister, adding that he assumed the money had also been returned.
“I think he returned the money to the buyer to get the land back,” he said, claiming he did not know the identify of the buyer.
Although the embezzlement of state property carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years, Mr. Sopheap will not face legal action, Mr. Sokhon said, and will remain on the ministry’s payroll. “We will not send him to court because we reached an understanding with him, and he faced difficulty in maintaining his family’s standard of living,” he said.
Because no formal complaint was filed by the officials who exposed Mr. Sopheap’s corruption, the ministry has no power to pursue charges against him, the minister said.
“We are not able to arrest him and send him to court because his subordinates did not file a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), and they have since calmed down because Mr. Sopheap returned the land,” Mr. Sakhon said.
Mr. Sopheap was removed from his position last week—about two months after his crime first came to light—and demoted to deputy head of the ministry’s Agriculture Information and Documentation Center, he added.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said the ministry and ACU did, in fact, have the power to initiate further legal action against Mr. Sopheap.
“Because…he’s a government official, he’s also under the jurisdiction of the ACU,” he said. “I don’t want to say obligated, but they have the power…. The government can file a complaint.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said Mr. Sopheap should be fired outright and prosecuted posthaste.
“I think he should be removed completely from his job or, in other words, he should be totally terminated,” Mr. Kol said. “The legal action must apply according to what the law states.”
He said Mr. Sopheap’s continued employment and protection from the law was indicative of the special treatment often afforded to government officials.
“It has become a common practice in various government or public institutions,” he said. “It is a form of impunity and a bad example.”