Two military officers went on trial Thursday for allegedly accepting a bribe to process the applications of three men in order to help them enroll in the National Defense University (NDU).
Ouk Sithorn, a colonel at the Defense Ministry’s inspection department, and Kim Sokhon, an official at the NDU, stand charged with fraud for allegedly accepting money from plaintiff Heng Rithy in exchange for helping enroll his nephews at the school.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Top Chhun Heng said that in October 2013, Mr. Rithy agreed to pay $12,000 to Mr. Sokhon, who promised the applications would be processed within three months.
Judge Heng said that after Mr. Rithy made an initial payment of $10,000, Mr. Sokhon gave Mr. Sithorn $9,000 to process the documents.
Mr. Sithorn admitted to accepting the money but disputed the exact amount.
“I admit I got the money but I got only $7,500,” he said.
In a written statement, Mr. Sokhon, who was not present in court, also admitted to taking the money, but said that when the applications were unsuccessful he returned an undisclosed sum to Mr. Rithy. He added that Mr. Sithorn did not return any money to the plaintiff.
Reached by telephone, Sar Moeun, vice rector at NDU, acknowledged that Mr. Sokhon is an official with the university but said that he did not know of the case. He said that all students at the university were accepted on merit and that spots at the school were not for sale.
“It is against the law, but when they do it, they never tell us,” he said of officials who take bribes.
Sot Vuthy, deputy director of the Defense Ministry’s inspection department, said he had informed his superiors of Mr. Sithorn’s arrest in May, but did not know if he had been fired.
“We never ordered him to do this. It is his personal matter. We are not involved and no leaders ordered him to do it,” he said.
Chhum Sucheat, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said all NDU candidates have to register, fill out applications and sit for written and physical examinations and that the final decision on enrollment is made by a committee.
“There is no one person who can process it, because there are many people on the committee to decide,” he said.
General Sucheat said the case against the men, who are facing up to three years in prison and a fine of 6 million riel (about $1,500), would not tarnish the reputation of the Defense Ministry. He also characterized the bribe-taking as “a personal matter.”
“If they committed wrongdoing, let the law decide,” he said. “We have no policy to let them [take a bribe].”
It was not discussed in court why Mr. Sithorn was jailed while Mr. Sokhon has remained free. Speaking to a reporter outside the courtroom, Mr. Sithorn said he believed it was unfair.
“We should have equal responsibility,” he said. “He is the one who received the money from Mr. Heng Rithy.”