Ex-police chief, serving 13-year sentence, was passenger; prison director being probed
Disgraced former Ratanakkiri provincial police chief Yoeung Baloung—currently serving 13 years in jail for his part in an illegal logging scandal—was involved in a traffic accident in Ratanakkiri’s O’Chum district on Saturday, hours after being granted an unauthorized leave of absence from the prison, officials said yesterday.
As word of the unauthorized release circulated yesterday, Liv Mauv, deputy director-general of the general department of prisons, said provincial prison director Ngin Nel could be fired if it was proved he allowed Mr Baloung to leave the prison without permission from the court.
Deputy provincial prosecutor Ros Saram said he interviewed prison director Ngin Nel yesterday after complaints were made by the families of three men whose legs were broken when a Zhongxing Grand Tiger pickup reportedly carrying Mr Baloung hit their motorcycle on National Road 78 on Saturday night.
While a police report said another man, Katroeng Lounh, was driving the car, Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the human rights group Adhoc, said many witnesses had told him only one occupant was in the car at the time of the crash.
Mr Saram said Mr Nel had informed him yesterday that he had allowed Mr Baloung out of prison on Saturday to attend a Kreung ethnic festival but had not informed the court.
According to Mr Saram, Mr Nel told him that Mr Baloung had been sick and was hoping that he would recover by attending the indigenous festival.
“There is paperwork to prove the prisoner fell sick for a few days…which is why his relatives and his wife asked the prison director for permission to take him for the celebration,” Mr Saram said.
Mr Saram confirmed that Mr Baloung was back in detention yesterday. “My investigation is not yet done because I need to question other prison guards too,” he said.
Mr Nel could not be reached yesterday.
Mr Mauv, the deputy prisons chief, said yesterday that a group of prison officials had been sent to Ratanakkiri to investigate the case.
“It is a crime that this inmate hit others” in the accident, he said, adding that prisoners could only be released if given the authority by a court.
“Ngin Nel is facing possibly being fired from his post if he is found guilty of letting a prisoner out without informing or gaining approval from the prosecutor in the province.”
Mr Mauv said prison directors in Preah Sihanouk province and Banteay Meanchey had previously been removed from their posts for similar acts.
“The arrest and detention of ex-Banteay Meanchey prison chief [Nuon Vanna] is a rich example for other prison directors to respect the rules and strengthen prison management,” he said.
Charges were laid against Mr Vanna in December for allegedly accepting a bribe in return for allowing an inmate to escape custody from Banteay Meanchey Provincial Prison in September.
Mr Bonnar, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator, said yesterday that he believed Mr Baloung had regularly been able to walk in and out of jail.
“The fact is that this inmate, convicted to 13 years in prison, has been freely walking in and out of the prison compound,” Mr Bonnar said, adding that last month he had seen Mr Baloung turning on the prison’s electricity supply outside of the prison’s perimeter fence.
“He has never been released on bail, or permanently stayed outside prison, but he has been treated very well by having full freedom to walk in and out of prison.”
The three men injured in the accident on Saturday night—Phang Pich, 21, Sam Keo, 19, motorbike taxi driver Chheng Nguon, 40—are all being treated at a hospital across the border in Vietnam, according to police and Sok Vuthy, the uncle of the two youngest victims.
“My relatives were on the way home from the provincial town when the terrible accident was committed by the ex-provincial police chief, who drove in the different direction,” Mr Vuthy claimed.
Provincial police chief Ray Rai said yesterday that Mr Baloung was in the car at the time of the accident but that his nephew was driving.
“The fact is that the driver hitting the motorbike was the nephew of Mr Baloung’s wife,” he said, adding that all three men suffered broken thigh bones in the accident. “The injured men were sent for treatment to a Vietnamese hospital because of their serious injuries.”
Mr Baloung was charged in 2006 with taking bribes and destruction of the environment after the World Bank and Environment Ministry uncovered an illegal logging operation in Ratanakkiri’s Virachey National Park.
Officials estimated that $15 million worth of logs had been cut by the time the operation was uncovered in 2004.
After being sentenced to 13-years jail in 2006, Mr Baloung spent time in Prey Sar Prison before being transferred to Ratanakkiri Provincial Prison in February 2009.