Illegal Chinese nationals are expected to be prosecuted for the first time in local courts for entering the country without valid documents in what some officials call an unprecedented crackdown on Chinese smuggling.
Officials predict the high-profile arrest of 222 Chinese immigrants and three Vietnamese nationals last month marks a move by the government to curb what has been described as the systematic importation of Chinese involving senior Cambodian government officials who are making tens of thousands of dollars monthly.
But others, including National Police Director General Hok Lundy, are calling the allegations of high-level government involvement a political move meant to raise the public profile of particular officials.
In any case, immigration police officials and Interior Ministry officials say they cannot recall a case involving illegal immigrants that ever went before a judge.
“This would be the first time,” an immigration police official who asked not to be identified said Thursday. “This is the intention.”
Even if the 225 arrested illegals are taken to court, however, many government officials doubt it do not think of the future of the nation. They think only of their pockets,” he said.
The 225 foreigners—only three Chinese out of the group even carried passports—were arrested Aug 19 in a police raid on a Tuol Kok district house after local residents complained large numbers of Chinese people were staying there.
In December 1996, 87 illegal Chinese immigrants were arrested in a swoop on a residence in the Tuol Kok. According to a Interior Ministry official involved in that case, the 87 were deported without court hearings. Authorities regularly round-up small handfuls of illegal Chinese immigrants, who are deported without court appearances, Interior Ministry officials say.
Chea Sophara, Phnom Penh’s first deputy governor, who spearheaded the latest arrest operation, vowed Thursday to continue the pursuit of illegal Chinese in Cambodia.
“We will do again 100 percent. We cannot stop, our strategy is not yet complete,” Chea Sophara pledged.
But Heng Vong Bunchhat noted that Chinese smuggling has existed for a long time before this action was taken and said Chea Sophara will most likely be discouraged from continuing to prosecute illegal Chinese because the involvement of Cambodian officials is so widespread.
Still, the government has been consistently reminded to address the problem of foreign nationals passing through Cambodia en route to third countries, diplomatic sources have said.
A Chinese Embassy official said Thursday that his embassy is cooperating with the government on the issue of the 200-plus arrested Chinese but was unaware of a court proceeding. “We haven’t been informed about this formally….We haven’t been informed about sending them to court,” the official said Thursday.
No firm court date has been set yet in this case, according to court officers.
But the courts expect to begin hearing the Chinese cases within two weeks, according to Kan Chheoun and Yet Chaktriya, both Municipal Court prosecutors.
Police files on the 200-plus illegal Chinese were sent Monday to Om Sarith, director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, according to Kan Chheoun.
“It is a historical case for Cambodian courts to try more than 200 offenders at the same time. It is also a very hard case as we have to copy hundreds of documents and provide security to ensure the trial flows smoothly,” Kan Chheoun said Tuesday.
Court standing room for the Chinese and transportation to and from the court will also be an issue, he said.
According to Yet Chaktriya, Om Sarith will sit as the trial judge and Chin Chiva will act as chief prosecutor.
So Vandy, deputy chief of the municipality’s immigration police department, said Tuesday that all files on the illegal Chinese were sent Monday to the prosecuting judge, Kan Chheoun, and the matter is now in the hands of the courts.
“Only three among the 225 Chinese arrested were holding legal documents. They had [Chinese] passports but their visas had expired,” So Vandy said.
Four of the Chinese escaped Aug 29, leaving 185 Chinese men, 33 Chinese women, two Vietnamese men and one Vietnamese woman still in custody at the Immigration Police Headquarters near Pochentong Airport and the Foreign Police Headquarters in central Phnom Penh.
Heng Sophea, director of clerks at the municipal court, said Tuesday the hearing would be the largest in recent history and the court was already working on the logistical problems involved.
“[A similar court case] has not happened since 1979. We might have to arrange them in smaller groups to make our work more efficient as our court rooms are very small,” she said.
Facing charges under article 29 of the Cambodian immigration law that prohibits entering the country without authorization, Kan Chheoun said, the Chinese could face prison sentences of three to six months.
“Even though the court judges them guilty and detains them in prison, after their release the Chinese immigrants will be deported to their country,” So Vandy said.
Some illegal immigrants were believed to receive Cambodian passports which allowed them to depart Pochentong Airport, officials claimed.
Chum Sunary, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Monday if passports were to fall into the hands of Chinese citizens, they could not have come from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, which can only issue diplomatic and official passports.
Passports for ordinary citizens were issued through the Ministry of Interior, he said.
“Now the Cambodian Embassies [overseas] cannot issue passports…[it’s] the Ministry of Interior [only] for ordinary passports,” Chum Sunary said.
Teng Savong, chief of the committee set up to investigate the smuggling trade, said Wednesday that Chinese nationals holding fake Cambodian passports have been discovered in the past.
“The are some cases of Chinese bearing Khmer passports but as soon as we discovered them, we sent them all back,” said Teng Savong, deputy chief of National Police.
Prok Saroeun, Chief of Immigration Police, said Wednesday that authorities “face difficulties” in determining the authenticity of Cambodian passports.
“Some Chinese hold Khmer passports by sticking their own photographs [on the passports]. But only experts can do that,” Prok Saroeun said.