Phnom Penh’s Top Judge Ousted Amid Graft Claims

Phnom Penh Municipal Court director Ang Mealaktei was removed from his position on Tuesday pending an investigation into rampant corruption at the court since he became its chief judge less than a year ago, government spokesman Phay Siphan said.

The decision was made public hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen criticized the court for releasing the parents of fugitive general Thong Sarath, who stands accused of coordinating the murder of businessman Ung Meng Chue in November.

“He’s been removed for an investigation,” Mr. Siphan said of Judge Mealaktei. “A number of people have joined to celebrate after hearing about the removal of the chief of the Phnom Penh court, and those people told me there was too much corruption there.”

Mr. Siphan said Judge Mealaktei’s removal had been a long time coming due to the judge’s unique style of jurisprudence.

“What he does—what he did—was according to his discretion, not according to due process and not according to the law, or what we call the spirit of the law. Everybody is so happy now,” he said.

“I wish all the cases under his leadership will be reviewed again, because I heard there were irregularities there. Quote me on that.”

Deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin said Taing Sunlay, a deputy director at the municipal court, would be promoted on Wednesday to the position vacated by Judge Mealaktei.

“I will join the ceremony to transfer the position from Ang Mealaktei to Taing Sunlay at 2:30 p.m. at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court,” Brigadier General Narin said. “Court officials invited me there this afternoon.”

Contacted by telephone, Judge Mealaktei declined to comment on his removal. Sam Pracheameanith, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which appoints, oversees and disciplines the country’s judges, also declined to comment.

Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap said the council was dealing with Judge Mealaktei.

“This case is processing under the Supreme Council of the Magistracy,” Mr. Santepheap said.

Mr. Siphan, however, indicated that the ouster of Judge Mealaktei—who in April was transferred to Phnom Penh from the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court, where he also faced corruption claims as court director—was ordered by the prime minister.

“Since the prime minister raised the issue of irregularities in the Phnom Penh court, so it happened. [Mr. Hun Sen] requested, he raised that this morning—the discretion and the independence of the court,” Mr. Siphan said.

In his speech Tuesday morning, the prime minister chided the municipal court for releasing the mother and father of Major General Sarath, who remains at large while four of his bodyguards await trial in prison over their alleged involvement in the murder.

“The government worked extremely hard in ordering the forces to hunt for the killers of Ung Meng Chue, and finally we arrested the nest,” Mr. Hun Sen said, referring to Maj. Gen. Sarath’s parents and bodyguards.

“The thing that cannot be understood is that the parents of the killer mastermind—the mastermind who ordered the killers, and stands accused of these charges—were released on bail,” he said. “It’s fine if the bail was allowed through the right legal procedures, but it was not done with the right legal procedures.”

Maj. Gen. Sarath’s parents were charged with illegal weapons possession shortly after their son went into hiding in November, and were caught trying to escape to Vietnam in an ambulance Sunday night after they were released on bail earlier this month.

Mr. Hun Sen said it was strange that their bail appeal filed to the Supreme Court on January 21—the day after the Appeal Court upheld the municipal court’s initial denial of bail—had been suddenly withdrawn on February 5, without a clear reason.

The municipal court, he noted, then inexplicably overturned its original decision the following evening, releasing the general’s parents the next day.

“The speed of solving this problem was very fast. It was so fast that it makes us doubtful,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I was not satisfied with this. I asked the Supreme Council of the Magistracy to take immediate action.”

The prime minister added he was also aware that one of Maj. Gen. Sarath’s three wives has been regularly visiting the court, and suggested a bribe may have helped the court disregard legal procedure.

“Is there another law? This law could seemingly be 100 [dollar] banknotes,” he said. “Let’s say 500,000 pieces, that would be equal to 5 million [dollars].”

Mr. Siphan, the government spokesman, also cited two other high-profile cases under Judge Mealaktei’s supervision that he said appeared irregular: last year’s brief jailing of Cambodian-American Richer San—a close personal friend of Mr. Siphan—and the current imprisonment of British businessman Greg Fryett.

“For Ang Mealaktei, there was a foreigner in Banteay Meanchey, and when he came [to Phnom Penh], he brought the case with him, and we saw a number of irregularities there. But the court belongs to the people and not to Ang Mealaktei,” he said.

Mr. Fryett, who is currently in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, became involved in a land dispute with powerful officials in Banteay Meanchey in 2013, and his case there was transferred to Phnom Penh when Judge Mealaktei moved in April.

In a July 2012 letter to Mr. Hun Sen, the governor of Banteay Meanchey at the time said three local officials—including Judge Mealaktei—colluded to “illegally” confiscate hundreds of thousands of dollars of machinery belonging to Mr. Fryett’s firm.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, who represents Phnom Penh in parliament, said it was troubling that it seemed to take an executive decision by Mr. Hun Sen to oust Judge Mealaktei, when formal institutions exist to investigate corruption in the judiciary.

“We need to look into the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which is not operating,” Mr. Chhay said. “They should have removed him a long, long time ago, and he should have been punished a long time ago.”

“He is a very corrupt man, but we are not going to make it work by the prime minister ordering the Supreme Magistracy to do it, and then they do a dance so quickly,” he added.

“There should be procedures—they should meet, investigate the guy, and make a report.”

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