Landlord Tells Naga Casino to Jump Ship

The owners of the boat used by Naga Floating Casino have ordered the casino operator to immediately vacate the vessel because of non-payment of rent. The order came in a letter dated Thursday to the Ariston Group, which runs the casino.

“Take notice that presently you are in arrears of your payment obligation to our clients and owe our clients for the amount of $2.213 million,” states the letter to the Ariston Group from an attorney representing Unicentral, the Singa­porean owners of the boat.

In addition, Unicentral threatened in the letter to file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit to recover back rent and unspecified damages and expenses. The letter was copied to two embassies, the Council of Minis­ters, the Council for the Develop­ment of Cam­bodia and the Cam­bodian In­vestment Board.

The letter comes two weeks after the Ariston Group won a judgment in a Phnom Penh municipal court allowing the casino to stay open indefinitely, despite a new government policy ordering all casinos in Phnom Penh to shut down by June 30. Ariston cited a contract signed in 1995 allowing it to operate in Phnom Penh for 20 years.

Thursday’s letter also states that Unicentral has already, or has plans to place a lien on all equipment on the boat. An attorney retained in Singapore for Unicen­tral declined to comment on the case.

In 1996, Unicentral filed a similar $5.4 million suit with the Singa­porean Supreme Court, and after months of legal maneuverings appeared close to a settlement. However, it is unclear how the case was finally resolved, and attorneys for Unicentral declined to comment.

Paul Ng, the manager of the Naga casino operations in Phnom Penh, said he had not heard of rent-payment problems, or any lawsuit, and that the casino has no plans to shut down.

“I don’t know anything about that,’’ he said. “I am very surprised because I have not received any orders to vacate or jump ship.’’

He referred calls to a top official at Ariston Group in Malaysia. Reached by phone, a receptionist there said top company officials were in Cambodia.

Calls to an official’s mobile phone in Cambodia were an­swered by an unidentified man, who hung up and turned off the phone after learning his caller was a reporter.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the casino ban in Decem­ber. Officials had asserted that gambling leads to kidnapping and other crimes.

The ban is part of a larger campaign by officials to reduce crime and improve the capital city’s image and attract investment.

It is unclear how the Malaysian company would be able to enforce a court judgment or lien without Cambodian government assistance, if the Ariston Group proves uncooperative.                                     When asked if the Cambodian government would enforce a Singaporean court decision, Khieu Thavika, an adviser to Council of Ministers chief Sok An, responded: “It’s an internal affair of Ariston, they should settle it by themselves.’’

Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara said the Council of Ministers is handling the situation with Naga.

But he reiterated his desire to see the casino closed “for corruption reasons, for criminal reasons. It is better to close them and move them somewhere else.’’

(Additional reporting by Khuy Sokhoeun)


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