Suspensions in Toxic Waste Case Debated

One year after toxic waste was shipped from Taiwan and dump­ed in the port city of Siha­noukville, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy on Tuesday called on the government to reinstate customs officials he said were wrongly suspended in the case.

Government officials, however, contend that Sam Rainsy overreacted because the suspended employees soon will be given government jobs.

The scandal was revisited at the National Assembly in debate over whether to pass a provision of a commercial law that would allow the government to grant special approval to import goods.

Sam Rainsy said the proposal could foster another “hard example” like the import of the 3,000 tons of mercury-tainted waste that sparked health concerns, riots and the arrests of human rights workers.

“I am extremely concerned about this unclear provision because it could only give the high-ranking government officials the chance to become even more corrupt,” Sam Rainsy said.

He also argued that the more than 40 customs staffers suspended in the case were just scapegoats and should be given back their jobs. “This is an injustice that only small customs officials were suspended. They just followed the order of high leaders. But the high leaders got off free.”

When the waste first was dump­ed in Cambodia in Novem­ber 1998, government critics alleged the transport was approved by high-ranking government officials.

The government swiftly re­spon­ded by suspending customs officials. Then Customs Director In Saroeun was the highest ranking official suspended. He was later charged in the case, but acquitted by a court that said customs officials had no way of knowing the shipment, identified as “cement cake,” was toxic.

Pen Siman, the current Cus­toms director at the Ministry of Finance, would not comment directly on Sam Rainsy’s statements. But he said officials were planning to meet next week and give the suspended workers new jobs. “They should have work to do for the nation,” he said.

Suspended customs official Lonh Vannak, formerly of the customs’ pricing department, said he heard he might be offered a job in the government. Since his suspension, he said he has reported to work at the Ministry of Finance but said on Tuesday that he does very little and his job has “no power.”

“I’m just doing paperwork,” Lonh Vannak said.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sam Rainsy jumped to conclusions.

“Since [the customs workers] have been suspended, the court has not proved them guilty. So they will be given positions,” Khieu Kanharith said in an interview Tuesday. He would not, however, specify whether they would get their old jobs back.

“It’s as if the door was about to be open for them. And Sam Rainsy has to push it wide open,” Khieu Kanharith said.

During the Assembly debate, CPP co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh defended the new law and said it would not be used for corruption. He said the provision would be used only to import goods in an emergency situation—not to import toxic waste. Before it eventually passed the Assembly on Tuesday morning, the article eventually was reworded to only apply to “humanitarian” goods.

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