R’kiri Prison Chief Defends Inmate’s Release

Ratanakkiri Provincial Prison director Ngin Nel yesterday confirmed that he allowed convicted former provincial police chief Yoeung Baloung to leave prison on Jan 15 to attend an ethnic Kreung festival without being granted prior authorization by provincial prosecutors.

Not long after leaving the prison, Mr Baloung—currently serving 13 years for his role in a large-scale illegal logging operation in Ratanak­kiri—was in a pickup that crashed into a motorcycle on National Road 78 in O’Chum district, breaking the legs of three riders.

Mr Nel said yesterday that he had attempted to seek authorization from court prosecutors before he allowed Mr Baloung to leave prison on Jan 15 and rejected witnesses’ claims that the inmate was driving alone in the pickup at the time of the accident.

“It was very urgent, and it was hard for me to make a decision on his leave when I was not able to contact a prosecutor, especially while I was busy at my relative’s wedding,” Mr Nel said.

Mr Nel said he had allowed Mr Baloung to leave after feeling sympathy due to the inmate’s health and informing deputy provincial governor Sar Nak.

“He was sick for a while and did not recover, which is why I felt sympathy and understood his poor health,” he said, adding that ethnic minorities had a different way of dealing with illness than “Cambodians.”

“To grant a two-hour leave for his poor health: In fact, I did a good deed.”

Mr Nak, who oversees prison affairs, corroborated Mr Nel’s version of events yesterday, saying the prison director had informed him about the release.

He said he did not consider allowing an inmate to leave prison without permission a “huge mistake.”

“Of course, I do not mean that what he did was right,” he said. “He just made an accidental and small mistake. We need to understand that we cannot carry out all administrative requirements and cover all corners of the procedures required by existing laws here [in Ratanakkiri]. We have to understand…people’s livelihoods are related to ethnic minority culture and beliefs.”

The Interior Ministry’s general department of prisons has conducted an investigation into the prisoner’s release, but senior departmental officials could not be reached yesterday. When or if they will release their findings is unclear.

Sam Pracheameanith, chief of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana’s Cabinet, said yesterday that a the report from a separate investigation carried out by Ratanakkiri Provincial Court had arrived at the ministry but that its contents had not yet been review.

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, yesterday questioned why Mr Nel had not requested that one of his deputies ask the court for authorization to grant a leave of absence to Mr Baloung.

“If there was no road accident, no one would know this inmate was granted leave,” he said, adding that witnesses had confirmed to him that Mr Baloung was driving alone in the pickup at the time of the accident.



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