Justice Minister Denies Shares in Shadowy Offshore Firm

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana had a stake in a shadowy offshore company in the British Virgin Islands, according to data made public on Sunday in what is being called the largest leak of secret documents in history.

However, Mr. Vong Vathana vehemently denied the accusation on Monday, claiming to have never heard of the company in question and threatening to sue the organization that has been releasing the documents.

Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana speaks to lawmakers at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh last month. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana speaks to lawmakers at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh last month. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The “Panama Papers,” a trove of more than 11 million documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca and being analyzed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), revealed clients—including 140 politicians from around the world as well as other wealthy elites—whom the firm helped to evade taxes and sanctions, and in some cases launder money using offshore companies.

The leaked documents show that Mr. Vong Vathana paid $5,000 for shares in the company RCD International Limited and was one of five shareholders, the rest of whom were Chinese and Cambodian “business officials,” ICIJ reported.

RCD International Limited existed for just over three years after being registered in early 2007. It was struck from the local registry in October 2010 and deactivated in November that year, and the purpose of the company is still unknown, according to the ICIJ.

Offshore companies can be used to launder money obtained through illegal means, although there may be legitimate reasons to register such a firm.

Following the revelation of Mr. Vong Vathana’s alleged shares in RCD, however, the Ministry of Justice issued a statement on Monday afternoon flatly denying that the minister had any involvement with the company.

“His Excellency the Minister has never known the above firm and never purchased a share from a foreign firm,” said the statement, which was signed by ministry spokesman San Sorphoan. “So the above information is false and a lie, which confuses the public and affects His Excellency the Minister’s name.”

The statement added that the Justice Ministry was in the process of contacting ICIJ to demand that it provide the source of the documents naming Mr. Vong Vathana.

In a telephone interview with the Thmey Thmey news service, the minister warned that a lawsuit would follow if ICIJ could not provide sufficient proof of his ownership of shares in RCD.

“I don’t know that company—how could I buy a share?” He said. “If they provide an improper reply, I will sue them. Now I want them to show substantiated proof, because I know nothing.”

Son Chhay, deputy chairman of the National Assembly’s banking and finance commission, said the Anti-Corruption Unit was obligated to investigate the company to determine whether any illegal activity had taken place.

“The evidence has to be investigated. When you have this kind of information, solid information like this, the Anti-Corruption Unit ought to investigate straight away,” he said. “They have to do something about it.”

Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said that while more information about the nature of the business was needed before condemning Mr. Vong Vathana’s activities, the revelation was “troublesome” nonetheless.

“[I]t is very troublesome if a minister use[s] an offshore shell company for his business deals,” Mr. Kol wrote in an email. “As a high level Government official, the minister is expected to serve as an example for the rest of society and not to engage in an offshore business where owners of companies are kept secret.”

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