Is First ACU Case a Sign of Things to Come?

Former Pursat prosecutor Tob Chan Sereivuth this week became the first person to be tried and sentenced in a case brought by the newly formed Anticorruption Unit.

Arrested in November on multiple counts of corruption, illegal detention and extortion, Mr Chan Sereivuth was handed a 19-year prison sentence on Thursday by Pursat Provincial Court.

While ACU officials have so far remained tight-lipped about the case, independent observers and opposition lawmakers said yesterday that the jury was still out on whether or not the ACU would be able to effectively battle corruption in Cambodia.

“Assuming that everything went according to due process, the verdict is indicative that nobody is above the law,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, an organization that supports legal training in Cambodia. “But it remains to be seen if further cases will be carried out across the board.”

Other NGO workers agreed with Mr Virak’s assessment.

“I think it is a welcome sign, but it…still needs more cases,” said Sek Borisoth, director of the media program for PACT Cambo­dia, which worked ex­tensively with the government on drafting the 2010 anticorruption law.

Mr Borisoth added that the main question left standing was whether or not the ACU—which he said lacked true independence—could help combat corruption over the long term.

“Everybody knows the ACU is close to the government, so it is not really a question of being independent or not. It’s a question about how it’s going to do its job,” he said.

Chan Soveth, chief monitor for the human rights group Adhoc, agreed that the ACU must pursue more corruption cases before it can be called a success.

“We want to see further measures to be taken on other corruption cases involved with more corrupt officials,” he said.

Since the November arrest of Mr Chan Sereivuth, the recently created ACU has pursued several other targets, including narcotics police officers.

Two prominent police officials–Lieutenant General Moek Dara, one of the country’s senior-most narcotics officials, and Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean-are under investigation for corruption and drug allegations in what officials say is a linked case.

But critics continue to complain that the ACU’s asset-declaration process is not transparent enough, and makes no provision for declaring the assets of officials’ spouses or family members. There are also lingering questions over the ACU’s independence, with the majority of the 11-member National Council for Anticorruption–which oversees the work of the ACU’s graft-fighters–being chosen by the government.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay yesterday called the arrest and sentencing of Mr Chan Sereivuth merely a symbolic gesture and said the ACU could still be used as a political tool by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I really think this kind of action by the corruption institution is not something that we find any confidence in,” he said.

Mr Chhay said that the ACU alone would not be sufficient to tackle Cambodia’s deep-rooted corruption. Instead, “you have to have a system to carry the people to participate in tackling corruption,” he said.

Government officials could not be reached for comment yesterday, a public holiday, but have in the past denied that the ACU was being used for political purposes and insisted that no officials, no matter how powerful, were above the law.

Top Sam, chairman of the National Council for Anticorruption, declined yesterday to discuss Mr Chan Sereivuth’s corruption case or the ACU’s anticorruption efforts, saying only: “It was the court’s jurisdiction and decision-making that we cannot interfere with, but the imprisonment was fair enough.”

But not everyone believes that Mr Chan Sereivuth’s sentence was adequate.

Villagers from Banteay Meanchey province’s O’Chrou district, the location of a ten-year-long land dispute between 170 families and the National Development Agricultural Association, said yesterday they were still planning to file a complaint against Mr Chan Sereivuth over his dealings with their case as soon as they find a lawyer to represent them. They said they were unhappy with Thursday’s sentence.

The NDAA said in early 2009 that Mr Chan Sereivuth–previously a judge in Banteay Meanchey–would be awarded 2 hectares of land after the land dispute case was finalized. But despite Mr Chan Sereivuth’s efforts to continue investigating the case in his new post as Pursat provincial prosecutor, the court sent the case back to Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court in February 2009 after declining to accept jurisdiction.

After spending six months in Pursat Provincial Prison, the four men were granted bail when the case was returned to Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court.

“Just 19 years in jail is far too light a punishment for him,” said Chea Sitha, 55, one of the four detained villagers. “He deserves to be sentenced to into life imprisonment for committing many counts of corruption and illegal detention, including the illegal detention of me and three other villagers.”

Than Borey, defense lawyer for Mr Chan Sereivuth, said he did not yet know whether his client would face additional corruption charges. He said he would meet with Mr Chan Sereivuth next week to determine whether they would mount an appeal.

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