Former anti-drug czar Moek Dara and his co-defendant Chea Leang were sentenced to life in prison after being convicted yesterday on 32 counts of drug trafficking and corruption by the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court.
A third defendant, their subordinate Morn Doeun—currently at-large—was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
During a trial that lasted nearly a month, prosecutors late last year revealed damning testimony from hundreds of witnesses who detailed a complex web of organized crime: a system by which the three defendants would regularly solicit bribes from known drug traffickers in exchange for doctoring their records. The men are believed to have netted upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars from hundreds of criminals whom they allowed to walk free over the course of four years.
Presiding Judge Ith Samphors said this was the first life sentence given to a public official since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
“The panel of judges thinks that cases of drug trafficking have critical impact on society and the country as a whole. In particular, they are government officials who committed corruption and drug trafficking crimes despite the fact that they worked as anti-drug officials,” said Judge Samphors, explaining the reasoning behind the sentence.
“They created the law, and they themselves extremely abused the law by trafficking drugs,” he added.
In addition to the prison terms, Moek Dara was ordered to pay a total of $325,000 in fines, and three separate plots of land he owned in Kompong Cham and Battambang totaling more than 40,000 square meters were seized by the court.
Chea Leng was fined $21,000 and his assets-including a Phnom Penh flat and a plot of land- were also seized, while Morn Doeun had three plots of land in Kompong Cham seized and was fined $34,000.
An arrest warrant has been issued for Morn Doeun, who received a lesser sentence due to inculpatory evidence provided to the court in the form of letters delivered by his wife, according to Judge Samphors.
Trial observers and the prosecution offered mixed reaction to the outcome, applauding the harsh sentences awarded to the two defendants. But they questioned why Morn Doeun was not handed down an equally strong sentence.
“For the conviction and sentencing of Mr. Dara and Mr. Leng, I’m so satisfied,” said prosecutor Phann Vanrath. “The impacts of drugs are unpredictable and really serious. I can’t imagine how many people are affected when just one kilogram of heroin is smuggled: it doesn’t affect just one user but it harms the whole nation because that drug user can commit crimes or kill others.”
“If the verdict were not a life sentence, the next anti-drug officials would not be frightened and the same crimes of drug trafficking and corruption could have been repeated.”
However, Mr. Vanrath added, he was considering appealing Morn Doeun’s sentence.
“I feel he should have been convicted to 30 years at least given the gravity of his crimes,” he said.
Trial observer Nop Virak, a provincial monitor at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said it was “a historic verdict,” especially given the potential warning signal it sends to other officials.
“It is a good message to send to current and future judiciary officials that they should implement their task in accordance with the law or face severe prosecution,” he said.
“But the conspirators and other joint agencies were not brought in for punishment,” he added, noting that according to the law all of those implicated in the crime should also have been charged.
Throughout his case, Moek Dara denied the charges against him. Speaking to the press briefly following his conviction, Moek Dara called the verdict unjust. During closing statements late last month Moek Dara said he would rather receive a death sentence than go to jail for life.
Ray Bunthoeun, one of three attorneys defending Moek Dara, called the sentence a grave injustice.
“The verdict is unjust. My client and defense lawyers for Mr. Leng and Mr. Doeun will definitely appeal the verdict and sentence,” he said.
“They did not deserve to get such huge and serious convictions and sentences,” he said, adding that the articles under which the men were charged demanded a greater body of evidence than what was provided.
Mr. Buntheoun also questioned the circumstances by which witnesses were chosen. Some of the witnesses called to the stand were convicted criminals who could have felt pressure to provide damning testimony against the men.
“Regretfully, most of the witnesses who testified at court against my client are convicts or detainees who seemed under pressure or intimidated to provide inculpatory evidence,” he said. “They might give testimony under pressure, hoping they might not be in trouble.”