Former Drug Czar’s Trial Commences

Moek Dara faces 38 counts of bribery, drug trafficking

When the high-profile trial of one-time drug czar Moek Dara starts in Banteay Mean­chey Provincial Court today, the former head of the National Authority for Combating Drugs will be facing no fewer than 38 counts of bribery and drug trafficking.

If convicted, sentencing could be harsh: three to seven years in jail for the bribes; life imprisonment for running a vast drug trafficking ring that involved confiscating narcotics and putting them back up for resale.

Human rights groups expect a stiff sentence for the disgraced Interior Ministry police lieutenant general.

Those same observers, however, criticized the Banteay Mean­chey court’s decision on Tuesday to sentence former provincial police chief Hun Hean to only four years in jail for three counts of bribery totaling $160,000. The court even knocked off nearly a year for the time the jailed police chief had spent in detention ahead of trial.

“We strongly believe the sentence against Mr Dara will be serious…because it doesn’t just involve bribes but also dealing with drugs, which is really serious,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho.

Mr Sam Ath and others might take heart from Pursat Provincial Court’s decision in May to sentence former provincial court prosecutor Tob Chan Sereivuth to 19 years in jail after convicting him of systematic extortion and illegal detention.

All three cases-against the former police officers Mr Dara, Mr Hean and the prosecutor Mr Sereivuth-were brought to court by the government’s nascent Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which will soon mark its first anniversary.

But despite the groundbreaking work in holding corrupt senior officials, with deep links to the ruling CPP, to account – a group notoriously impervious to the law – observers are critical of the ACU for not pursuing charges against the subordinates who paid the bribes up the chain of command, and the superiors who collected them at the top.

“The culture of low-level subordinates collecting money from various sources to bribe superiors to protect their positions or to buy posts has existed for a long time,” Mr Sam Ath said.

“That is why we appeal to the Anti-Corruption Unit to enlarge its investigation…. We hope the sentencing of Mr Dara is not the end of the story.”

During Mr Hean’s trial, for instance, economic crime police testified about making routine irregular payments to the provincial police chief, though the prosecutor made light of their culpability because they said they were only following time-honored orders.

“We are suspicious about how the economic crime police collected the money to bribe Hun Hean. Those police may have taken bribes from others, too, so I think the court should investigate further the source of the money,” said Soum Chankea, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.

At a press conferencing in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, ACU Chairman Om Yentieng, who is also head of the government’s human rights committee, said that plans were being laid to get rid of such low-level corruption among government officials.

Though details were scant, Mr Yentieng said that making unofficial payments “official” would be part of the solution.

“There have to be [legal] service fees for police so that police won’t take illegal fees, then they won’t be illegal money grabbers,” he said. “If they get promotions from deputy bureau chief to bureau chief with [paying] $7,000, this cannot be tolerated.”

Mr Yentieng said rules on the new payment system were being drawn up but offered no timetable.

“We will issue a legal [option] on the service fees,” he said. “After this legal [option], the ACU will enforce the law. Whoever abuses this even a tiny bit and we get evidence, we will grab them and send them to court.”

Political observer Chea Vannath said the very fact that government officials have started openly talking about corruption was progress in itself.

As pervasive as bribery was, she said, “it is better now. Now at least you hear about the cases of corruption.”

As for today’s trial in Banteay Meanchey, former anti-drug officer Chea Leang, who also faces 38 counts of bribery and drug trafficking, will join Mr Dara in the dock. Both men were arrested in January. A third defendant, anti-drug officer Morm Doeun, remains at large and will be tried in absentia for 38 counts as well.

Provincial court Prosecutor Phann Vanrath said Mr Dara had already been transferred from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, where he has been held since his arrest, to the prison in Banteay Meanchey. With 142 witnesses to hear from, he said the trial could take months to complete.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha and Zsombor Peter)

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