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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Crooked cop or whistle-blower?

Crooked cop or whistle-blower?

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Heng Chivoan

Former Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov is interviewed by reporters after his January 11 promotion to the rank of Major General and Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Interior. At the time he was also Personal Adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Today he is a fugitive from justice, his whereabouts unknown.

Heng Pov is a wanted man. But with his exact location unknown, the battle between

the former Phnom Penh police chief and the Cambodian government is a public relations

exercise rather than a legal fight.

The government has declared Pov a corrupt murderer.

"Heng Pov is not a political refugee," said Khieu Sopheak, Ministry of

Interior spokesman. "He is a criminal. He kills people, and he kidnaps people

for money."

Pov has retaliated with claims that he is being persecuted for his political and

ideological commitment to democracy and human rights, and his attempts to fight corruption.

"I am innocent of all charges against me," he said in a statement released

on August 8. "I am being targeted by the Cambodian government for my determination

to bring an end to high level corruption."

But an analyst of Cambodian politics, who declined to be named, voiced an explanation

that helps explain the ferocity of the current broadsides between Pov and the government.

"He pissed off his boss," the source said. "It's that simple."

The government maintains that Pov's commitment to democracy, his anti-corruption

drive, and his support of human rights in Cambodia are a sham.

"It is just people around him who are making up ideological excuses for him,"

said Sopheak. "If UNHCR take him as a political refugee his presence would be

a disrespect to the agency."

Pov's lawyer, David Chen, told the Post from Singapore on August 9 that Pov's ideological

beliefs are valid.

"This is not just rhetoric to get refugee status," Chen said. "The

propaganda campaign mounted by the Cambodian government has sought to portray him

as a criminal - but it is time the world heard the other side of the story."

Pov has decided to reveal all he knows about high-level corruption within the Cambodian

government, Chen said.

"He has had enough, so he is now prepared to stand up and be counted,"

Chen said. "He wants to talk and I think the international community should

be very happy to have someone coming out of Cambodia with this information."

Pov has told Chen he has details of the high-ranking government officials who are

involved in the trafficking of illegal drugs. Pov, in his role as head of the anti-trafficking

police, came to understand - and swiftly came into conflict with - those who handle

Cambodia's illegal drug trade, Chen said.

At a party held by Hok Lundy in 2003 Pov was told by Sao Sokha to reconsider his

high-level investigations into the drug trade as drugs don't cause any problems within

Cambodia," Chen said. "Pov disagreed, but was told by Sok An that if he

continued his investigations Sok An would 'kill him with his own sword.'"

In turn, the government has accused Pov of a string of assassinations and attempted

assassinations - the earliest of which occurred in 1998.

Whether or not these are "trumped up charges" designed to prevent him sharing

such choice details of corruption as Chen claims, or whether he is genuinely guilty,

his case serves to illustrates the depth of corruption within the upper ranks of

the Cambodian police and military, said one civil society activist who declined to

be named.

"This case has opened our eyes: we knew he was corrupt but we didn't have evidence,"

the activist said. "Now we have evidence, we have bank accounts, houses, illegal

weapons."

But the possibility of prosecuting Pov has come about only since he lost his power

within the government. When Pov was in favor, he was immune from prosecution even

for major crimes, said Sun Sokhom, editor of Koh Santepheap newspaper.

"Following an attempted assassination on my editor, Thong Uy Pang, in 1998 we

lodged a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court," he said. "But

the court did not dare to make any arrests even though they knew who the culprit

was."

When Pov lost his powerful police job in January this year Koh Santepheap was able

to revive the case, Sokhom said.

"Only after Heng Pov was stripped of his position did we feel able to complain,"

he said.

Mok Chito, head of Phnom Penh's Penal Police, said there had only been a delay in

charging Pov with these crimes, because it had been impossible to prosecute at the

time.

"From 1998 Heng Pov worked as police chief and was responsible for investigating

evidence," Chito said. "So if he was investigating himself he could get

rid of a little bit of evidence if necessary."

Chito said that in 1998 he sent a letter to Hun Sen in which he said his investigation

had concluded that Pov was behind the assassination attempt on Thong Uy Pang.

"I found out that the murderers are men of Heng Pov, and Heng Pov himself,"

the letter, dated November 11, 1998, said.

It was only when Pov was moved to a position in the Ministry of Interior that it

became possible to build a case against him, Chito said.

"It became easier to obtain evidence on him," he said. "Not just the

police but the judiciary have been investigating him, finding documents and evidence

against him as he stands accused of far more than just the attempted assassinations

of Sao Sokha and others - there are many cases of kidnapping."

But Pov's lawyer Chen claims the charges against Pov are being fabricated to get

him out of the way for two key reasons.

"It is part of a personal vendetta, as he has trodden on too many important

toes," Chen said. "Also, Hun Sen got wind of the fact that he has been

secretly helping the opposition party and called him a traitor to the CPP - this

is not just personal. He is being persecuted for his political beliefs, for his ideology."

A source who knows Pov, but who declined to be named, confirmed that Pov had trodden

on a great many toes over the course of a career that began in the 1980s at the Toul

Kork Police department. Confrontation was a hallmark of Pov's, he said.

"He had problems with his boss and was demoted for a while in the 80s,"

he said. "[Later in his career] there were so many complaints from police under

him about his leadership, he was advised to change his ways. But he didn't. In the

end no one could help him."

Self-aggrandizement was also a character trait of Pov's, the source said.

"He has a long record of promoting himself," he said. "Nobody ordered

him to initiate any of the actions he undertook; he always had to look like a big

guy. We don't know if he wants to be the moon, or the sky or the sun or something

else."

Chito says he is convinced that Pov will not escape justice.

"Criminals cannot escape from the net of the law," he said. "But it

will sometimes take a longer or shorter time to bring them to justice depending on

the circumstances. I don't think that other countries will want to harbor a criminal

in their country."

Pov has applied for political asylum at the Australian High Commission in Singapore.

A spokesperson for the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh said that as a matter of

practice, Australia does not confirm or deny that an application for visa has been

made by any person.

Chen would not reveal the whereabouts of his client on August 9. He said one of the

charges that has been flung at Pov and widely reported in news media - that he was

involved in the killing of a Singaporean - was simply an attempt on the part of the

Cambodian government to ensure the Singaporean government's cooperation.

The Cambodian government claimed the Singaporeans had been eager to help.

"We are happy with the positive results of our cooperation with the Singaporean

police," Sopheak said. "They are helping us to apprehend Pov."

It is now a question of Pov's word against the Cambodian government's regarding who

is most corrupt. Pov is aware that the legitimacy of his claims will be called into

question, Chen said.

"Credibility is always an issue, given that Pov has not got any evidence physically

in his hand at this stage to prove his claims," he said. "Part of the evidence

is in Geneva, part in France, most of it is in Cambodia. But when we get hold of

it we will build our case. It is only a matter of time until the evidence comes out."

Playing cat and mouse with the government he once worked for is taking its toll psychologically

on Pov, Chen said.

"He is terribly worried and depressed," he said.

The Cambodian government, however, is confident it will get its man.

"Heng Pov will be caught and brought back to Cambodia to face justice,"

Sopheak said.

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