Cambodia’s customs director and four deputies have been suspended in the wake of an investigation into mercury-tainted waste dumped near Sihanoukville.
Customs Director In Saroeun was suspended because he gave permission to the Sihanoukville customs office to allow the waste to be unloaded from the ship from Taiwan, according to an official with the government investigative team.
Those letters of permission were signed on Dec 2 and Dec 4, according to the official, who asked not to be named. The ship containing about 3,000 tons of industrial waste arrived on Nov 30 and was unloaded on Dec 4, officials said previously.
In Saroeun refused to comment Tuesday, except to say that he was not involved in any wrongdoing. On Dec 17, he indicated ignorance of the significance of the shipment.
“We, customs, know only how to pay tax,” he said then. “We do not know what it is. How could we ban it from being imported?”
In Saroeun has been the nation’s top customs official for just a year. He replaced Sar Ho in late 1997, pledging to end corruption.
Government officials said last week that they had suspended about 30 officials because of the scandal.
Tests still are being conducted to determine the toxicity of the waste, which was dumped behind a military police post 14 km from downtown. One sample tested in Singapore showed an extremely high level of mercury. Preliminary tests of water wells and air in the area showed no detectable levels of mercury.
Reports of illnesses and the death of one port worker in part prompted thousands of residents to flee the Sihanoukville area last week.
Prak Leng, chief of Cabinet of the Finance Ministry, confirmed Tuesday that In Saroeun and four deputies had been transferred out of customs “because of their involvement in industrial waste.” He said the transfer letters were signed by Finance Minister Keat Chhon (CPP) last week.
Finance Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Rabun (CPP), also confirmed the suspensions on Tuesday. Asked if the customs officials were suspended because of the toxic waste scandal, he replied, “Yes it is true—because of the waste problem.”
Pen Siman, secretary of state for the Commerce Ministry (CPP), said Tuesday that he has been appointed to replace In Saroeun as head of customs.
He said the appointment was made by royal decree on Tuesday as requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen. A copy of the decree wasn’t immediately available.
Pen Siman said he started working in customs two days ago and will be formally taking office by Jan 1. He said he would try his best “to ensure proper implementation of responsibilities in the customs department.”
The four deputies suspended were Seang Chhun Try, Men Khin Virak, Duch Sovannry and Pich Vong, according to a report in the Khmer-language newspaper Chakraval (Universe). In Saroeun took up the job as the nation’s top customs officials in November 1997 and criticized the customs department’s past performance.
“Cambodia is facing a difficult time because of the activities supported by high-ranking officials,” In Saroeun said days after becoming Cambodia’s customs director. “The corruption includes customs officials operating illegal businesses, and others colluding with businessmen.”
Sar Ho admitted to customs department corruption when he was replaced by In Saroeun.