A Kampot police official has accused four top law enforcement officials of accepting bribes to protect marijuana plantations, allegations they say are ludricrous.
Kampot province deputy police chief Keo Tha, arrested in April in connection with February raids on plantations in Kampot’s mountainous Chhouk district, made the allegations in a six-page handwritten statement dated April 15. The statement was obtained last week from a Ministry of Interior official and was verified by Keo Tha’s attorney as being written by Keo Tha.
In the statement, Keo Tha accuses two senior members of Cambodia’s anti-narcotics police and two senior RCAF officials of accepting a total of $80,000 of bribes from the plantation owners to protect their crops. The four officials named and the alleged bribes taken are as follows:
• Em Sam An, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, $30,000.
• Pol Saroeun, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief, $10,000.
•Thong Lim, anti-narcotics chief at the Interior Ministry, $10,000.
•Keo Samuon, Military Region 3 commander, $30,000.
All four men vehemently deny the charges. News of the statement has prompted a number of senior Ministry of Interior officials to call for an investigation.
But the allegations are being treated with caution by police and diplomatic sources, who said they could reflect an internal feud at the Ministry of Interior.
“Everybody pointed at [Keo Tha] but there had to be someone more influential,” said one senior Interior official. However, he warned that Keo Tha’s statement could be motivated by powerful backers who are attempting to embarrass their rivals in government.
An Asian diplomat based in Phnom Penh said he has heard a high-ranking government official could be supporting the circulation of the statement. “There had to be official involvement in the plantations, but the story is still very blurry,” the diplomat said.
Although police raided the plantations in February, it wasn’t until April that Keo Tha was arrested along with Keo Bunthoeun, chief of Intervention Police at the Interior Ministry.
Keo Tha, who authorities say is being held at PJ Prison, has refused to speak with reporters. The statement indicates it was written while Keo Tha was waiting to be questioned by authorities. Keo Tha’s attorney, who requested anonymity, said Keo Tha told him that he wasn’t coerced into making the statement.
Over the past week, all four of the officials accused by Keo Tha have said he is lying.
Thong Lim, chief of the anti-narcotics department at the Interior Ministry, said Thursday he had nothing to do with Keo Tha or bribery.
Pol Saroeun, RCAF deputy commander in chief, said the allegations were “outlandish.” He noted he had spent two nights in Kampot during the crackdown and his forces destroyed the plantations that he is being accused of accepting money to protect.
Em Sam An, secretary-general of the National Authority for Combating Drugs, called Keo Tha’s allegations “baseless charges.”
Keo Samuon, commander of Military Region 3, said Sunday that Keo Tha’s claims that he received $30,000 were ‘’crazy.’’
“It is completely not true….I have nothing to do with it. It is really very crazy that [Keo Tha] points to this person and that person [without evidence],” said Keo Samuon.
According to Keo Tha’s statement, two businessmen came to the area in June 1999 looking for land for a fruit plantation. He acknowledged he received a $3,300 commission to help them find land.
“Later, I found out that they did not plant [fruit], but [instead] marijuana,” Keo Tha wrote. He said the activity was reported by police to the National Authority for Combating Drugs and, later, the commanders of RCAF Military Region 3.
He said that when the plantation owners heard the possibility of a crackdown, they paid a total of $80,000 to the four officials. Smaller bribes ranging from $100 to $5,000 were paid to other, lower-ranking officials, according to the statement.
Keo Tha said in his statement that he kept the four government officials informed about activities at the marijuana plantations and that they planned to crack down despite receiving the bribe money.
“[Keo Tha] would not be the only one in prison if we followed state law,” said his attorney. “Many high-position people were behind him.”
Keo Tha’s attorney said he didn’t know who witnessed Keo Tha’s statement, but he said it was delivered to co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.
Sar Kheng on Monday would neither confirm nor deny receiving the statement.
“I have already sent this case to the court. What is important is the court enforces the law,” Sar Kheng said.
Mong Mony Chakriya, Municipal Court investigating judge, said earlier this month that he would not discuss the case because of its sensitive nature regarding high-ranking officials. On Tuesday, he said he did not have Keo Tha’s statement but said he would investigate the allegations if he acquired a copy.
After the two police officials were arrested in April, a number of Cambodian police officials expressed skepticism that they were the only ones involved, noting that the marijuana plantations were so big they needed the protection of higher-ranking officials. Nearly 10 tons of dried marijuana were confiscated during the crackdowns.
Prime Minister Hun Sen—who took part in one of the three operations to destroy the plantations—in late February criticized national anti-drug and provincial officials for allowing drug traffickers to set up the sophisticated operation unhindered.
Director General of National Police Hok Lundy said after the arrests of Keo Tha and Keo Buntheoun that investigations would continue to catch the masterminds, which he said included RCAF officials.
An RCAF commander based in Koh Sla said Sunday that the government has so far targeted only the “ants” involved in the operation while the “elephants” are still free.
Skadavy Mathly Roun, an adviser to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, said last week that an investigation at the Interior Ministry is needed, noting that the authority’s reputation is at stake.
“This must be investigated in case it is true that someone accepted bribes from drug traffickers,” Skadavy Mathly Roun said. “We cannot accept this….The NACD has a good reputation in the region.”
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said last week he had not been informed of the statement by Keo Tha, but said an investigation should be launched if the statement is authentic.
Kampot Governor Ly Sou acknowledged in late February that he knew of the plantations’ existence for a number of months, but said he was powerless to act against the Kampot-based military and police officials who protected the operation.
One laborer who worked for six months tending the marijuana crops on Phnom Thlan Muy Roi (100 Python Mountain) said recently that RCAF helicopters visited the plantations at least six times.
The helicopter’s passengers, including a high-ranking official escorted by RCAF commandos, were met by a Chinese-Thai man who operated the plantation, said the worker.
The raid on the plantation occurred some 10 days before a regional drugs conference in Phnom Penh hosted by the UN Drug Control Program. At that time, the diplomat called the operation a public relations move.
An Asian diplomat described Keo Tha’s arrest as a sacrificial offering to dispel charges of impunity by donor countries who closely monitor Cambodia’s burgeoning drugs industry.
A human rights official said Thursday that Keo Tha’s protection in prison must now be of utmost concern to the government because of the seriousness of the allegations.
The adviser noted too many people have acknowledged collusion in the plantations for the statement to be treated as a complete hoax.
In the conclusion of his statement, Keo Tha wrote: “I am terribly sorry that my job is finished after 30 years. I am loyal to the CPP.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Lor Chandara)