Nine Nigerian men and a Cambodian woman accused of dealing methamphetamine out of a Phnom Penh church were on Monday sentenced to between five and eight years in prison, with the foreigners to be deported upon their release.
After a six-month investigation found that the drug ring was operating out of the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Church in Meanchey district, officials from the Interior Ministry’s anti-drug department set up a sting, offering to buy 200 grams of crystal meth in January last year.
The nine were arrested at five locations across Meanchey and Chamkar Mon districts on the same day, according to police, who said that one member of the group would retrieve payment before another departed from the church to deliver the goods.
Each of the nine has denied drug dealing, although one Nigerian and the Cambodian woman admitted to delivering packages without knowledge of their illicit contents.
The network’s suspected ringleader, Obieze Kenneth Uche, 35, remains at large, but was sentenced in absentia.
At the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday, Presiding Judge Khy Chhay handed down the long-awaited sentences, finding all 10 guilty of drug trafficking.
“After all nine foreigners serve their sentences in prison, they will be expelled from Cambodia and banned from re-entering Cambodia for five years,” the judge announced.
Izuchukwu Chukwuma, 40, and Okarom Kizito Chimedu, 35, were sentenced to five years in Prey Sar prison and fined 12 million riel, or about $3,000. Nhabuife Favour Okorom, 36, and Nwabuisi Sunday, 31, were sentenced to six years and fined 10 million riel (about $2,500). Nna Mezie Victor, 30, and Simon Maduka Ukandu, 45, were sentenced to seven years and fined 13 million riel (about $3,250). Mr. Uche, Francis Nnamdi, 30, Tony Mmaduka Chukwuonye, 34, and Mam Vinyong, 25, the Cambodian woman, were sentenced to eight years and fined 14 million riel (about $3,500).
The judge did not explain the varying sentences and court spokesman Ly Sophana could not be reached.
Lay Longdy, a lawyer for Ms. Vinyong—who testified during her trial that she had delivered smartphone boxes, not knowing what was inside, in exchange for $100 payments to support her newborn child—said the ruling was unjust.
“She just did what she needed to do in order to get money to raise her child, because she is a widow,” Mr. Longdy said. “The sentence is a bit heavy.”
Yin Panharith, a bureau chief at the anti-drug department, who led the investigation, said there had been sufficient evidence to convict the entire group.
The arrest of Mr. Uche, he said, was imminent.
“We are continuing to search for the ringleader and we know we will arrest him because we have an arrest warrant in hand already,” he said, adding that the search would soon expand beyond Cambodia’s borders.
“We are preparing a Red Notice for Interpol,” he said. “So that any police officer can arrest him.”
The Nigeria-based Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries Church, which moved its Phnom Penh branch to Meanchey’s Boeng Tompun commune in July, has denied involvement in the meth ring.
“Those arrested are not members of the church. They are neither our missionaries nor workers in the church,” church official Oladele Bank-Olemoh was quoted as saying by the Nigerian newspaper Punch last month.
“The church was searched and nothing was found, though arrests were made outside the church. We employed a lawyer to prove the church’s innocence.”
A woman who sells fruit from a stall near the church’s original location, who asked to be named only as Sophoan for fear of reprisals, said the church closed down for a few months after the arrests last year, but that worshippers soon returned.
“Only the arrested people stopped coming,” she said, adding that 20 to 30 people continued to attend the church before it moved.
Heang Pouthyla, 49, who owns the apartment building that currently houses the church, said she was worried about the possibility of continued drug dealing but decided to lease her building to the church anyway. “We also need money,” she said.
Only 10 people attend services on Saturdays and Sundays, she said, and all seemed well-mannered.
“Even though we’re a bit scared, not all 10 people can be bad,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)