Cambodian anti-narcotics police officers said on Wednesday they have arrested a senior government official, holding a rank equal to undersecretary of state, in a drug bust that uncovered thousands of methamphetamine pills and precursor chemicals.
The suspect is the highest-ever Cambodian government official nabbed on drug trafficking charges, Interior Ministry officials said.
Tep Sumphan, 48, a member of the government’s human rights committee, which is headed by prime ministerial adviser Om Yentieng, was arrested on Tuesday allegedly in possession of almost 4,000 methamphetamine pills and almost 1 kg of a chemical powder used to produce pills, said Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak.
Khieu Sopheak, who also holds the post of deputy secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said Tep Sumphan was arrested in his vehicle on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh.
“This is the first high-ranking official that has been arrested for drug trafficking,” Khieu Sopheak said, adding that the suspect was sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday.
According to Khieu Sopheak, the powder allegedly found in Tep Sumphan’s vehicle could have produced thousands of pills.
Municipal Court Chief Prosecutor Ouk Savuth confirmed on Wednesday that Tep Sumphan was sent to the courthouse and was facing serious drug charges, but declined to elaborate.
Om Yentieng confirmed on Tuesday that Tep Sumphan was a member of his human rights committee. However, Om Yentieng said he did not know the suspect well, other than he was affiliated to a political party, the name of which he said he could not remember.
Methamphetamine abuse has rocketed in Cambodia in recent years, leading anti-narcotics experts to fear the country faces a methamphetamine problem larger than the epidemic that swept Thailand in the 1990s.
But, in the wake of Thai border closure following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh and Thailand’s recently launched “war on drugs,” the flow of drugs between Thailand and Cambodia has slowed markedly, police officials said.
The drug drought, however, has raised fears among police officials that the cross-border narcotics trade could be transplanted to alternative routes through Laos and into northeastern Stung Treng province.
The arrest of Tep Sumphan should prompt the government to reiterate to Cambodians the dangers of drug use, Graham Shaw, program officer with the UN Office for Drugs and Crime in Phnom Penh, said on Wednesday.
“It proves that Cambodian law enforcement has the capacity to crack down on drugs. But with such a notable person, we must see what action the government takes to promote the dangers of drugs,” Shaw said.
In 2001, anti-narcotics police officer Sok Sophak—who also served as an assistant to the then head of the National Authority for Combating Drugs—was arrested with over 14,000 methamphetamine pills.
The drug bust led to the removal of Interior Ministry Secretary of State Em Sam An from his post as NACD chief.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)