Heng Pov: Cop, Criminal, Hero or Killer?

He risked his life and lost his leg in a courageous effort to end a siege and save the lives of a dozen cornered criminals. He took on an untouchable military police official allegedly dealing drugs, at risk to his own life and that of his family. He sent his brother to kill a newspaper editor because he didn’t like what he printed. He ordered the murder of a lowly civil servant because he was angry about his electricity bill.

Criminal. Hero. Ruthless killer. Cop. It’s hard to know the truth about former Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov.

Friends, acquaintance and rivals offer two diametrically opposite portraits of the man who fled the country earlier this month, just ahead of an arrest warrant and allegations tying him to government corruption, drug dealing and a string of assassinations.

“There are two Heng Povs: One is a good guy, educated, working well,” said one NGO worker who knows him well.

“That’s the one I know. He was always a top student. He was respected by his men. He said we could call him any time. I don’t know the bad guy. It’s difficult to explain the bad things we’re hearing about him.”

Counters one former municipal police chief who worked under him, Heng Pov “is a man of sweet words, with a sweet voice, but a brutal heart.”

“He was arrogant and he was cruel,” the former associate said.

“He is a man who liked the gun. He is a policeman, but the behavior was not that of police discipline. He used his brutality to kill drug suspects, threaten other police officials, intimidate and extort money from businessmen,” he alleged.

Whatever the truth, some common traits emerge from decades-old police documents, accounts offered by his detractors and the memories of his supporters. Most agree that the beefy, pug-nosed police chief was a crafty political operator, who feared few, offended many, and limped with a proud swagger that may in the end have been his downfall.

He rode the coattails of the nation’s powerful from a low ranking position all the way to the top-serving for a brief time as an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen.  But his fearlessness-his greatest asset for a time-eventually blinded him to his limits.

Heng Pov was born into an ethnic Vietnamese-Chinese family in Prek Pnov Village, Ponhea Leu district, Kandal Province. Heng Pov’s law enforcement career began shortly after his 1981 marriage to an older Vietnamese woman, named Tung Thi Van, who was the daughter of Tung Pov, a powerful Vietnamese government agent in Phnom Penh. At his father-in-law’s urging, Heng Pov joined the police force on March 11, 1982, and soon gained a reputation as both a smooth political operator, and a hotheaded troublemaker, according to a government dossier in the possession of the former municipal police chief.

An early government document from 1984 compiled by government authorities and obtained by the Cambodia Daily describes Heng Pov as “young, handsome,” and so careful of his appearance as to be almost vain. “Face to face,” the document reads, “this comrade is polite, with sweet words, but he has a lot of secrets.”

Apparently, his love life was not one of them. One night between 9:30 pm and 10:30 pm, police were called by neighbors during a loud verbal dispute with a woman named Phuong Phany. A few days later, Phuong Phany lodged a complaint against Heng Pov, accusing him of raping her. She later withdrew the complaint, and Heng Pov set her up in her own apartment, according to the documents.

Nor was this the only incident that drew the attention of authorities in the early years. Around the time of the domestic dispute, a superior complained that after locking the door to the bathroom one night and leaving Heng Pov to work late alone in the office, he returned the next morning to find that Heng Pov had deposited a pile of excrement wrapped in a taro leaf in the garbage bin next to his desk.

Heng Pov told his superior during the ensuing argument: “What can you do against me? My father-in-law is a municipal agent. I can report to him whenever I want and he will listen to me, not you.”

The first record of a violence came two years later.

One night in 1986, Heng Pov appeared in uniform outside the Tuol Kok district home of a salmon importer named Lay Chhun Sareth, 43. Enraged at something Lay Chhun Sareth had told a mutual acquaintance-the report does not say what-Heng Pov berated him from the street and, as a small crowd gathered to watch, cursed and threatened him with death.

When Lay Chhun Sareth refused to come down and face him, Heng Pov retired to the office of the local commune chief, who he convinced to summon Lay Chhun Sareth. When he arrived, Heng Pov beat the businessman until his face was swollen and bleeding, sending him to the hospital, according to the report.

“Working as police officer, he committed a lot of crimes,” the former Phnom Penh police chief claimed. “But he always escaped punishment, or removal from his job, because he always asked his father-in-law to help.”

In the early 1990s, Heng Pov rose to become chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-drug police department. He moved over to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, then became deputy director of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-drug department. In 2001 to 2002, government officials appointed Heng Pov deputy chief of municipal police-then promoted him to be chief and eventually under secretary of state at the Ministry of Interior, and an advisor on security to Prime Minister Hun Sen himself.

“Heng Pov’s trick,” says a former colleague, “was to regard senior government officials as his godfathers, god brothers, to build his relations, to help him to move up in positions. Such relations were to beef up his power, and his activities.”

Yet Heng Pov was also undeniably devoted to his job.

Certainly, his fearless lack of regard for consequences enraged his colleagues and drew unwanted scrutiny. But it made him a hero at times, as well as a sometimes-effective crime fighter.

In 1992, a dozen bandits broke into a gold shop near Olympic Stadium and made it all the way to Kompong Speu province, before police cornered them in a small house. Heng Pov’s colleagues wanted to go in shooting.

But Heng Pov took a megaphone and approached fearlessly through a rice field, urging them to surrender and avoid bloodshed. Instead they opened fire, and Heng Pov went down in a hail of bullets, which shredded his leg. It was later amputated.

In 1998, as drug chief, he oversaw the arrest and eventual conviction of Pao Chenda, a military police officer in Kandal province, on drug smuggling charges.

In March 1998, military police armed with assault rifles and an M-79 grenade launcher fired on Interpol headquarters and his residency nearby. One bullet ripped through the wall of his bedroom, where he slept.

While many believed he would flee the country, Heng Pov hung tough, telling reporters that there had already been several plots to kill him since the arrest of Pao Chenda in the drug sting.

“They planned to have a car crash into mine and if I got out of the car, they would use a gun with a silencer to shoot and kill me in a crowd,” Heng Pov told The Cambodia Daily at the time, declining to name the plotters. “They will invent a story saying I provoked an attack.”

In recent years, he tried to make inroads with the NGO community. Kek Galabru, founder of local rights group Licadho, remembers Heng Pov calling her at 11 pm one night after rescuing 52 sex trafficking victims locked in a Phnom Penh hotel. Heng Pov wanted to keep them overnight to make sure they were not rounded up by the traffickers, but in the end the girls wanted to disperse and go home.

Last year, he allowed human rights workers to hold a seminar for his officers on human rights and the importance of stopping torture.

“I don’t know what his intention was,” Kek Galabru said. “But we were surprised he let us do it. He always told us the same thing-that if we had a problem with trafficking to call him.”

Still, even those in the NGO community saw the traits that may eventually have led to his downfall.

One remembers listening to him speak at a seminar last year, in which he seemed almost drunk on power. Heng Pov told officials that “many officials want to take my job, because my job is profitable and maybe you can earn millions of dollars.” Heng Pov told them that “maybe I will finish all crime.”

He added that his “security is threatened all the time by the criminals. But don’t worry, everywhere I go, I have policemen, waiting there, disguised as waiters or workers.”

Said the aid worker: “No government official talks like that.”

“I was very surprised. Maybe they make a million dollars a month, but to say that, you make people jealous. And you get in trouble. It’s very important for your life to keep it confidential.”

Heng Pov’s accusers claim that in recent years his arrogance and blindness to consequences colored many of his actions.

“During meetings with deputy municipal chiefs, he threatened to kill other deputies who refused to follow him,” his former colleague said.

The cases revealed in the government dossier are damning and imply an almost megalomaniac sense of entitlement.

In one case, Heng Pov allegedly had a dispute with a former Electricity Du Cambodge branch chief in Chak Angre commune in Phnom Penh that led to an attempt on the life of EDC official Kim Daravuth.

Kim Daravuth told police on Aug 9, 2005, that the dispute started when Heng Pov stopped paying his electricity bill. When it reached more than $3,500 in unpaid power bills, they cut off the supply to his Takhmau district home.

Eventually, he paid the bill. Then he broke the meter. When his bills suddenly came in at zero, Kim Daravuth ordered his officials to confiscate the meter and examine it at EDC headquarters. Realizing it was broken, he issued a new one. But Heng Pov refused to accept it, demanding he return the broken one instead. Kim Daravuth ordered his deputy to negotiate with Heng Pov. Enraged, Heng Pov slammed his hand down on the table, and warned “take care of yourself, I will destroy you.”

Soon after, gunmen shot Kim Daravuth in the neck. He is now paralyzed.

In another case, according to police documents, Heng Pov directly called a judge and ordered him to reverse a verdict. The judge, Sok Sethamony, refused, saying “you can reverse the decision after I die.” The next morning, gunmen shot the judge to death.

There are many more documents and more allegations are sure to arise-including the shooting of a Singaporean businessman over a property dispute that drew the ire of the Singaporean Embassy, and the 1998 shooting of Koh Santhepheap newspaper editor-a case which has hung over the head of Heng Pov ever since.

In the end, many-including most notably relatives of Heng Pov’s former men-say his sensational fall from grace had little to do with his criminal tendencies.

After all, in the rough and tumble world of Cambodian politics, ruthless dispatch has been customary.

Rather, they say, it was Heng Pov’s arrogance, his insatiable ambition, and his growing might that prompted powerful opponents within the government to move against him. Heng Pov simply did not know his own limits.

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