PHNOM Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday convicted a former executive at South East Asia Radio and TV of breach of trust related to allegations that he stole millions of dollars from the station, and ordered him to serve three years and six months behind bars.
In reading out the verdict, judge Oeung Sieng also ordered Sem Sovandeth, who has been held in pretrial detention for about eight months, to repay US$4.7 million, as well as $250,000 in compensation.
“His property that was found inside his office will be returned to SEA Radio and TV,” Oeung Sieng added.
The case against Sem Sovandeth was brought by SEA TV director general Kao Kimhourn, who told police in October he had discovered “irregularities” in his colleague’s accounting practices.
At a hearing last week, Kao Kimhourn’s lawyer, Ing Kerya, told the court that Sem Sovandeth had deliberately misused money provided by the station’s Japanese backers.
Yim Cheat Vannak, deputy chief of SEA TV’s technical department, said that, in one instance, Sem Sovandeth embezzled about $1.3 million by citing false equipment prices.
“He requested $1.5 million to buy lights for the studio, but I found out that the equipment only cost $200,000,” he said.
In total, Ing Kerya lined up 12 SEA TV staff members to give statements accusing Sem Sovandeth of skimming from their salaries and misappropriating funds.
Though Kao Kimhourn originally accused Sem Sovandeth of stealing $7 million, Ing Kerya said Tuesday that he had since gone back over the books and determined that the total was actually $4.7 million.
Ing Kerya said Tuesday that he agreed with the verdict and sentence.
“The verdict gives justice to my client. We accept the decision of the judge to make [Sem Sovandeth] pay my client US$250,000,” he said.
Sem Sovandeth did not appear in court on Tuesday. He was also absent for the hearing last week, and Oeung Sieng said at the time that health reasons had prevented him from showing up.
His lawyer, Vong Peakdey, said Tuesday afternoon that he had not yet informed his client of the verdict and thus did not know whether he would pursue an appeal.
“I will ask him whether he wants to file a complaint at the Appeal Court, because it is his decision,” Vong Peakdey said.
Last week, Vong Peakdey accused the court of failing to conduct a thorough investigation into the case, and said he doubted that one person could have been responsible for such large-scale fraud.
He also called on the court “to create an independent body to audit all incomes and expenses of the TV [station] so that the court can provide justice to my client”.
After the verdict was read Tuesday, he blasted it as “biased and unjust”.
“Whatever my client suggested, the court always denied,” he said. “But whatever the plaintiff suggested the court always agreed.”
A 45-year old woman who identified herself as Sem Sovandeth’s second cousin, and who gave her name only as Srey, was the only person besides Vong Peakdey to appear in support of the accused. She also said the verdict was “unjust”, and urged the court to “investigate the real cause of the money mismanagement”.
“There was a boss above Sem Sovandeth,” she said. “I do not believe that he would have done anything like this without the agreement of his boss.”
She said family members would likely meet with Sem Sovandeth and his lawyer to discuss the prospect of an appeal.