Fraud Case Highlights Bribery Around Requests for Citizenship

The Court of Appeal on Monday acquitted a South Korean businessman who allegedly stole $50,000 that was supposed to be used to acquire Cambodian citizenship for his boss in 2007.

Koo Bonkwang, the former president of Commerce Central Finance, a microlender, said he paid the money to his partner, Hwang Wonchul, in the hope of gaining citizenship, which is necessary for owning land in the country.

But instead of handing the money over to Yem Kosal, a Cambodian broker who was used to process Mr. Koo’s citizenship, Mr. Hwang allegedly stole it. In 2008, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s sentenced Mr. Hwang to 18 months in jail.

“The Appeal Court has acquit Hwang Wonchul from fraud,” presiding Judge Chay Chandaravan said Monday in court.

Mr. Kosal, who was absent from court, said through a statement that he had not received the cash from Mr. Hwang and had in fact got the money from another South Korean man identified as Kim Jukyung.

Mr. Kosal’s statement also said that he had already paid $15,000 to various unnamed government officials in order to obtain the citizenship, but that he would refund the remaining $35,000.

Although applying for Cambodian citizenship is supposed to be free-of-charge, Monday’s court case underlines just how much cash is involved in acquiring citizenship.

According to Prak Vannarith, chief of the department of foreign affairs with the Ministry of Interior, applicants for Cambodian citizenship must prove they have lived in Cambodia for at least seven years or that they have been married to a Cambodian national for at least three years in order to become a citizen. In addition, they must take tests and prove their proficiency in the Khmer language.

Another option is financial generosity. In 2005, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie was awarded citizenship after adopting a Cambodian boy and pledging about $5 million to set up a wildlife sanctuary in Battambang province.

Mr. Vannarith also said that those who donate at least $250,000 to the national budget are eligible to apply for citizenship.

But asked about the high levels of corruption involved in the process, Mr. Vannarith said he had never heard of any officials lining their pockets.

“I have never heard about this [bribes being paid to authorities]. We don’t take bribes, even if it’s just $10 for a phone credit,” Mr. Vannarith said, adding that he was staggered by the large sum Mr. Koo was willing to pay.

Such practices, he added, should be punished in accordance with the Anti-Corruption Law, which outlaws both receiving and giving bribes to civil servants.

To make the process of acquiring a Cambodian citizenship clearer, three new sub-decrees on the renunciation of a citizenship and the acquiring of a citizenship by marriage or nationalization were signed last month, Mr. Vannarith said.

Under the new rules, foreigners must only pay a fee to cover administrative costs.

“There is a draft prakas for the fee that’s not done yet,” Mr. Van­narith said, adding that his department suggested a fee of 1.5 million riel, or about $375.

For Pierre Yves Clais, who moved to Cambodia more than 20 years ago and married a Cambodian national, obtaining his citizenship three years ago came with a price tag of about $4,000.

“We followed the normal process…but you never get any in­voice because they are not official fees,” he said.

According to Mr. Vannarith, Mr. Clais is one of just 700 foreigners who have applied for Cambodian citizenship since 2000—most of whom are Chinese and Korean.

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