Police officers cracked jokes and made toasts at the Meanchey district police office on Friday afternoon, just hours after their chief, Hy Narin, was charged with embezzlement and exploitation and sent to Prey Sar prison.
Seven empty beer boxes sat in a pile and dozens of cans lay scattered on the floor as about a dozen men wearing various pieces of their police uniforms crowded around a steel table.
Choem Sitha, who was promoted on Thursday to acting district police chief after Mr. Narin was charged with embezzling more than $600,000 over eight years, said that the drinking party was a toast the unit’s new headquarters.
“We are having a blessing ceremony to please the spirits on this land because we moved here just one month ago,” Mr. Sitha said.
“The villagers brought us this beer because they love the police,” he said.
Mr. Narin was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) on Tuesday and accused of creating a multitude of scams and extortion rings that he used to enrich himself during nearly a decade as police chief.
Among the allegations are claims that he entered ghost employees to his payroll and collected their wages and withheld bonuses intended for his subordinates. He is also said to have extorted money from traffic accident victims, businesses, factories and illegal gambling establishments. The total value of his corruption, according to the ACU complaint, is $678,059.
You Bunna, the investigating judge on the case at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, delivered the charges to Mr. Narin on Friday after three days of questioning, according to court clerk Yim Chetha.
“Hy Narin was charged with unlawful exploitation committed by a public official and unlawful exploitation of the state budget,” Mr. Chetha said.
“He has been sent to prison.”
Those charges could see Mr. Narin incarcerated for up to 15 years. The embezzlement charge also carries a fine of “double the sum of money or value of property embezzled.”
Mr. Sitha, the new acting Meanchey police chief, said that he had worked under Mr. Narin for about 10 years but claimed that he was not sure why his former boss was targeted by the ACU.
“I think that the people who are close to Mr. Narin complained against him,” he said. “A few people close to Mr. Narin are being questioned by the ACU.”
As other officers sat behind him swilling beer, Mr. Sitha said that he had a plan to restore the public’s confidence in his unit following the arrest of the district’s top cop.
“The first step is we no longer take money from vendors,” he said.
He also said that officers would be regularly deployed to areas that are “complicated” in the district, which is home to hundreds of factories and was the scene in December and January of numerous garment sector protests, some of which ended in violence.
“We have a plan to send our forces to patrol all the complicated places,” Mr. Sitha said. “We also have a 24-hour hotline to receive problems.”
Preap Kol, executive director of anti-graft group Transparency International Cambodia, predicted that the charges against Mr. Narin were just a small sampling of the official corruption in Meanchey district.
“It is very unlikely that Narin was able to collect that much money alone, considering the network that he works in,” Mr. Kol said. “I suspect that other people are involved.”
Mr. Kol, whose organization ranked Cambodia 160 of 177 countries in its 2014 corruption perceptions index, also said that the charges against one of Phnom Penh’s highest-ranking cops would serve as a warning to police across the country.
“This behavior is very common. This case is just one of many happening across the country,” he said. “The government won’t be able to put them all in jail though—there is not enough space.”
“So the charges against Mr. Narin are a message from the government to police of all ranks that they have to change and that the impunity that they have enjoyed for so long is over.”