Ten days after receiving permission from three ministries to formally question and possibly detain nine government officials in connection with the Sihanoukville toxic waste scandal, the most prominent suspect still has not been called to court.
Customs Director In Saroeun said Sunday he was called in for preliminary questioning on Jan 7, but has not heard from Sihanoukville Court since. “I have not been summoned,” he said.
Prosecutor Mam Muth said on Jan 21 that nine officials, including In Saroeun, would face charges in the waste case, and that would be only the beginning.
But Mam Muth said last week that he has handed over the case to the investigating judge, Huon Mony, who will make the decisions about who to call and when.
Huon Mony would only say Monday, “Just wait, I am working on the issue.”
The only person arrested so far is Sam Moeurn, operator of the Muth Vuthy company, whose name is on some customs documents. He was arrested on Dec 21 and has been in jail since. It remains unclear how much the Taiwanese company paid to import the waste and who received the money.
Mam Muth said he saw a “few” of the targeted nine officials being questioned on Monday by Huon Mony. But he said no detention orders have been issued, because such orders would have to cross his desk first for approval.
For his part, In Saroeun on Sunday reiterated his innocence: “I did not know that it was [toxic waste]. I thought that it was simple goods. In the document, it said cement materials.”
The 3,000 tons of waste shipped by Taiwanese petrochemical giant Formosa Plastics were dumped in the seaside town in early December and since have been found to contain high concentrations of mercury. The waste now is being tested for other toxins such as cancer-causing dioxin.
One port worker who cleaned the ship and a 16-year-old villager who slept on bags containing the waste both died, but it remains unclear if their deaths were linked to handling the waste.
Mam Muth has identified nine government officials that he wants charged in the case: In Saroeun, Seang Chantry, Lonh Vannak, Sun Somphal and Ny Sean, all of customs; Tep Vuthy and Chheng Sopheap of economic police; Kean Vichet of border police; and Peng Chheng of Camcontrol, which was in charge of product inspection.
Finance, Commerce and Interior ministries gave their written permission to allow the employees to be questioned and possibly detained.
More than 100 employees from Camcontrol, Customs and the Interior Ministry’s Economic and Border Police units have been suspended, according to government officials.
But Mam Muth said Monday that there has been no proposal so far by the investigating judge to question more than just the nine initial suspects.
Mam Muth said last week that the investigating judge has no staff to assist him.
“It is a difficult investigation. If the judge has problems, he might come talk to me to discuss possibilities,” Mam Muth said. “If he needs [additional] help, he can ask the police or military police.” That in itself is problematic, however, since the waste was dumped behind a district military police post.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has maintained that some government officials are being made scapegoats to protect superiors.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith last week called Sam Rainsy’s allegations as a “shameless” attempt to benefit from the publicity surrounding the incident.
“To claim that the government has a motive besides finding the truth is groundless,” Khieu Kanharith said. “We have given a green light to the prosecutor in Sihanoukville to investigate. We want to know who is involved in this incident to decide the matter once and for all.”
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, also the Interior co-Minister, is in-charge of monitoring the incident.
Both Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sar Kheng have called for officials responsible for importing the waste to be punished.