Banteay Meanchey provincial police have arrested an adviser to National Assembly and CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin for his alleged role in an illicit Kompong Speu province drug production laboratory, officials said Thursday.
Oum Chhay, owner of Chhay Chhay Investment Ltd, was arrested Wednesday afternoon in O’Chrou district’s Poipet commune for allegedly aiding the transportation of over four tons of amphetamine precursor chemicals to the Kompong Speu lab, which police raided in April, said Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
“[Oum Chhay] helped to transport the chemicals in order to make amphetamines,” he said Thursday, the same day officials began disposing of the dangerous chemicals at the lab.
Heng Samrin confirmed by telephone that Oum Chhay is one of his advisers, but downplayed the arrest, saying that Oum Chhay’s role in the drug lab was minimal.
“Police just detained him for questioning only—he was not deeply involved,” Heng Samrin said, adding that he had little information about the arrest.
Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean said that his department received orders from the Ministry of Interior to arrest Oum Chhay on Wednesday.
“We made the arrest and sent him immediately” to the Interior Ministry in Phnom Penh, he said, before declining further comment.
Tan Yim Chhay, deputy managing director for Chhay Chhay Investment—which operates the 360-hectare Chhay Chhay special economic zone in Poipet—said Oum Chhay was arrested while he was on his way to Thailand, adding that he believed his boss was innocent.
“Let the authorities solve the problem. They will find justice for us,” Tan Yim Chhay said, adding that Oum Chhay was not fleeing the country at the time of his arrest.
“He was going to Thailand to attend a seminar he was invited to by the Thai Commerce Ministry,” he said.
On April 1, police arrested 18 people—14 Cambodians, three Chinese nationals and one Thai national—during raids in Phnom Penh and Phnom Sruoch district’s Treng Trayoeng commune in Kompong Speu.
No actual amphetamine pills were discovered during the raids, and the families of the 14 Cambodian men have maintained the men’s innocence, saying that they had only been at the site for one hour before the police raid.
The men were hired on the understanding they would be spraying chemicals to kill grass, their families maintain.
Thursday also saw the start of a UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the National Authority for Combating Drugs joint effort to dispose of the toxic chemicals at the lab, including 2,000 liters of potentially explosive thionyl chloride.
Speaking at a ceremony at the drug-lab site Thursday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said the chemicals came from China and were brought into the country through Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
Sar Kheng called on the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, the Ministry of Health, the Council for the Development of Cambodia and customs officers to undertake strict measures before allowing potentially dangerous chemicals into the country.
Suy Sem, Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy, said by telephone that he agreed with Sar Kheng’s appeal.
“We have to be careful—all together,” he said, adding that his ministry will enforce more stringent checks on chemicals brought into the country.
After the ceremony, the wives of four of the 14 arrested Cambodians, who live less than 1 km from the lab site, claimed that the owner of their land has threatened to evict them if their husbands don’t return to work their fields by the end of September.
Thou Thang, 53, wife of detained villager Chap Chen, 53, said that without her husband she and her three children are barely scraping by. “We are living in difficulty without our husbands,” she said, reiterating that the arrested men did not know they were being hired to do anything illegal.
Speaking at the ceremony, Teng Savong, vice chairman of the NACD, said it is the responsibility of the Kompong Speu Provincial Authority to submit the documents needed for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to consider releasing the men on bail.
Provincial Governor Kang Heang said by telephone that he had ordered his staff to prepare the necessary documents and expects to submit them to the Phnom Penh court Monday.
Municipal Court Director Chiv Keng said he was too busy to speak with reporters Thursday, and Chief Prosecutor Ouk Savuth declined to comment on the case.
(Reporting by James Welsh and Saing Soenthrith in Kompong Speu and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh)