The Appeals Court on Thursday granted a group of Kampot province-based salt producers the right to sell their excess product.
The ruling is the latest in a series of court actions and followed involvement by co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng in the issue.
The judgment overturned an earlier ruling by the governor of Kampot in favor of the Pheapimex company, which earlier this year was granted an exclusive government contract to control distribution of salt produced in the southern province.
The governor’s ruling nullified an even earlier judgment by the provincial court in Kampot, where a judge ruled in favor of the producers. At issue was whether the producers could sell this year’s excess salt directly to the market or if they have to sell to Pheapimex first.
As the two parties argued, Sar Kheng intervened. According to a letter Sar Kheng sent last week to the producers, he initially supported their claim to sell. But when Pheapimex objected to his advice, he advised that the matter be settled by the Appeals Court, a recommendation about which his office informed Prime Minister Hun Sen, court officials and staff of Sar Kheng said.
Despite the ruling by the higher court, a top Pheapimex official alleged foul play was involved.
“The judge in Kampot and the prosecutor are co-workers. That is why the license is being granted,” Pheapimex President Lor Meng Se said Thursday. “I think what the Appeals Court did…was not 100 percent fair.”
The Kampot provincial judge conceded Wednesday that one of the prosecutors also is a salt producer, but he denied allegations of corruption and said he made the initial ruling “to help the people.”
Pheapimex Deputy Director Ing Ly Seang said Thursday’s ruling lacked “respect and understanding” for the company.
In April, Pheapimex secured a 99-year government contract with the help of NGOs that encouraged the company to iodize salt and sell it to Cambodians, whom studies show have iodine-deficient diets.
But the deal has brought criticism from NGO workers who argue that a government monopoly to sell salt was merely replaced with a private monopoly.
Environmental watchdog Global Witness has reported that Pheapimex had strong ties to the government in the 1980s and criticized the company for its logging practices.
However, company officials handling the salt deal denied last month the company had a dubious past.