Phnom Penh’s fugitive former police chief Heng Pov has received an entry visa from the government of Finland, his lawyers said Wednesday.
After two months of negotiation and an independent review by the Finnish government, Heng Pov’s legal team received written notification of the decision Wednesday and exhibited it in Malaysia’s High Court on the same day, lawyer N Sivananthan said.
“They have offered him a visa to enter into Finland,” Sivananthan said by telephone from Kuala Lumpur, when Heng Pov is currently being detained.
Since his Oct 3 arrest for overstaying his entry pass in Malaysia, Heng Pov has been fighting deportation to Cambodia, where he was convicted in September of the 2003 murder of Municipal Court Judge Sok Sethamony and stands accused of a host of other crimes.
Heng Pov is seeking political asylum and has made detailed counter allegations of corruption and murder at the highest levels of Cambodian government.
Cambodian officials have dismissed his accusations as groundless.
Sivananthan said Finland’s decision significantly increased Heng Pov’s chances of avoiding deportation to Cambodia.
“In view of the fact that a visa has been granted to [Heng Pov], the government may be compelled to let him go,” he added. “Previously, when we wanted to seek a deportation order to Singa-pore, the question was ‘once he’s in Singapore, what happens then?’” Sivananthan said. “Now we have a very compelling reason for us to ask for an order for him to be deported to Singapore because then he can continue to Helsinki.”
Finnish officials could not be contacted Wednesday as Finland’s embassies in Malaysia and Bangkok were closed for the country’s Independence Day.
Heng Pov’s wife, Ngin Sotheavy, wept as she pleaded for Heng Pov’s release in front of reporters at a Wednesday press conference in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian news Web site Sun2Surf reported.
“I hope the Malaysian government will release my husband so he can go,” she was quoted as saying. “If my husband is deported to Cambodia he will be tortured and killed,” she said.
Ahmad Shukor, a Malaysian attorney also representing Heng Pov, said the legal team understood that the visa would allow Heng Pov to apply for political asylum once in Finland.
“The Finnish Embassy is not telling us but from what we gather it is basically for him to go to Finland, then they will investigate his claim for asylum,” Shukor said.
He added that it was unclear for how long the visa would be valid.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said he was too busy to speak to a reporter and Om Yentieng, an advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, declined comment on the case.
However, Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said that if the lawyers’ reports were true, Finland would be welcoming a criminal.
“We regret this because Heng Pov has been sentenced to 18 years in prison in Cambodia,” he said.
“If it’s true, it’s not the first time,” he added. “Finland always provides political asylum to those Cambodians who have been opposed to the government.”
In 2004, Finland offered asylum to Chea Kimny, wife of slain Free Trade Union leader Chea Vichea, and to SRP activist Sok Yoeun, whom Cambodian authorities had blamed for a 1998 rocket attack on Hun Sen’s motorcade in Siem Reap province.
It was unclear when Heng Pov could be allowed to leave Malaysia, but a departure before the end of the week is not impossible, Sivananthan said.
William Chik, first secretary at the Singaporean Embassy, declined to comment on the case, while a Malaysian Embassy spokesman could not be reached.
Finland’s offer to temporarily take Heng Pov will likely give him the freedom to reveal more about recent political crimes in Cambodia, SRP leader Sam Rainsy said.
“It is important to protect the freedom of speech of a witness as important as Heng Pov,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that he felt Heng Pov has further important things to say about the 2004 murder of Chea Vichea and a 1997 grenade attack that killed more than a dozen people outside the National Assembly.
But Municipal Court Judge Ke Sakhorn, who in September sentenced Heng Pov to 18 years in absentia for the murder of Sok Sethamony, said he was bewildered by Finland’s decision.
“He is guilty but that country supports him? I don’t know what to do,” he said. “If they take a criminal to their own country, what will be the result?”
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said Finland has long been good to Cambodians in flight.
“Don’t say I admire the case of Heng Pov but I really admire and respect Finland,” she said.
“A lot of Cambodians arrested in Cambodia now live in Finland. Even Chea Vichea’s wife got a visa in Bangkok after only 10 days.”