The three-month police sting that netted more than 600 illegal Chinese immigrants has failed to catch a single ringleader.
In fact, authorities have not charged anyone with links to the human trafficking network on any level. It’s also unclear if the operation has been slowed.
National Police Director General Hok Lundy said evidence did not surface pinpointing the ringleaders, which moved Chinese nationals through Cambodia to other countries.
“We are investigating those connected to the case to punish them, but we don’t have enough evidence [to make arrests],” Hok Lundy said, indicating suspects had been identified but revealing no details.
“Police officials were accused of being involved in the case but there is no proof, no evidence,” said Hok Lundy.
In a Monday interview, the powerful police chief restated a vow made two months ago to demote and arrest any police official proven to have participated in the smuggling operation.
Some officials, however, are not satisfied.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara instigated the crackdown that began Aug 19 when 225 illegal immigrants were taken into custody from a Tuol Kok district villa. He said Tuesday he is not pleased the individuals here facilitating the trafficking of hundreds of foreigners through Cambodia have not been publicly identified and jailed.
“I am not happy because it is a long time and a very large crime. Someone must be responsible for it,” the governor said. “I am disappointed they [police] cannot find out who is the mastermind. This is not good for the law. The ringleaders must go to court.”
Previously, the governor said the trafficking network was assisted in Cambodia by a Cambodian diplomat posted abroad and senior National Police officials.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also reiterated this week that officials involved in the smuggling operation must be revealed and punished. “I am not sure [who are] the ringleaders but their Cambodian accomplices must be found,” he said.
Punishing Cambodian officials involved is the only way the government has of “cleaning the house,” said Khieu Kanharith, adding the Interior Ministry was responsible for the investigation.
Chinese Ambassador Yan Ting Ai said authorities from both countries must cooperate to thwart the network.
“We don’t know how many people in Cambodia or which ones are involved [but] it should be investigated….We hope the [Cambodian] government will work with us to attack the chiefs of the ring,” the ambassador said in an interview last week.
Police say they are continuing to investigate.
Teng Savong, deputy director general of National Police and the government’s appointed head of the investigation into the Chinese smuggling scam, said Wednesday that the investigation will continue. He said apprehending the ringleaders was a priority.
“This case we are still investigating…. If we continue we will get results,” said Teng Savong.
Discounting allegations the ringleaders are well-known officials protected from investigators, Teng Savong said local law is not influenced by rank or power.
“Our country has laws. Every person is under the law….The law never thinks about high rank or low rank. There is no obstacle to stop us from the investigation. It is impossible,” said Teng Savong.
Hok Lundy said if Chea Sophara was unhappy with the work of the police he should talk with the co-Ministers of Interior Sar Kheng and You Hockry.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak challenged Chea Sophara to present proof of his allegations of the complicity of high-ranking officials.
“If Chea Sophara can support his argument, you should ask him,” said Khieu Sopheak.
Evidence linking officials to the network hasn’t surfaced, two city police officials close to the investigation said. “There is no proof that Cambodian government officials are involved,” said So Vandy, deputy chief of Municipal Immigration Police.
Bith Kim Hong, the city’s deputy police commissioner, said: “Seemingly, [based on the evidence] no government officials are involved with illegal Chinese immigrants.”
However, Bith Kim Hong also said investigators suspect some mid-level police officials have ties to the smuggling network, but evidence remains elusive.
So Vandy said Chea Sophara’s claims were not made without some basis in fact. “The governor might know which senior officers are involved, otherwise he would not have made the claims. Low-ranking [police officers] cannot make the claims he does,” said So Vandy.
Meanwhile, a top city court official says he has removed himself from the investigation into the Chinese smuggling ring.
Kan Chheoun, the Municipal Court’s chief prosecutor, said this week amassing proof against the officials involved in the illicit practice served no purpose.
“I disassociated myself from the case. I don’t want to investigate it again because what I was doing served no purpose…Doing more is not possible,” said Kan Chheoun, adding he was frightened.
Kan Chheoun warned last month that he would resign from the investigation if intimidation from “powerful people” continued. He also said his investigation was hampered by police authorities’ unwillingness to lodge complaints with him against suspects.
The police “did not file complaints and send them to me,” Kan Chheoun said. “So I could not carry out further investigations.”
(Additional reporting by Gina Chon)