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Canberra embassy probed for 'duty-free abuse': report

A view of the Cambodian embassy in Canberra, Australia in March 2015. Google Maps
A view of the Cambodian embassy in Canberra, Australia in March 2015. Google Maps

Canberra embassy probed for 'duty-free abuse': report

Cambodia’s ambassador to Australia yesterday swiftly denied allegations of corruption amid reports the embassy is under investigation for links to an alleged alcohol and tobacco black market that took in roughly $200,000.

According to Fairfax Media, the Australian Border Force is investigating the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in the Australian capital of Canberra because of alleged abuses of diplomatic “duty-free” privileges, which were used to make a profit.

It is the second corruption scandal to rock Cambodia’s foreign office in the past month, with the Kingdom’s ambassador to South Korea, Suth Dina, arrested and charged with unlawful exploitation and abuse of power in early April after an Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) probe turned up 12.7 kilograms of gold and US$7.2 million cash in his possession.

The Australian Border Force would not confirm the investigation, responding to the Post’s requests for clarification only to say that “the ABF does not comment on any investigations”.

Fairfax reported yesterday that large amounts of tobacco and alcohol were suspected to have been ordered by embassy officials through Unique International Duty Free, based in Melbourne, but the goods were never delivered, and were instead sold off the shelves at retail price in an estimated A$200,000 scheme.

While diplomats are able to import up to 10,000 cigarettes, 500 litres of beer and 120 litres of spirits every six months for personal use (and embassies can import twice that amount), it is illegal to sell on the highly taxed goods without paying taxes to the Australian government.

But Cambodian Ambassador to Australia Koy Kuong stressed that there had been no wrongdoing on his watch. “Our embassy and staff have not done anything wrong or illegal in Australia,” he wrote in an email.

“We always follow strictly the rules and laws of the land.”

Kuong, however, has only been in his post since last year, when he replaced outgoing ambassador Chum Sounry.

Now the spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sounry yesterday professed ignorance of the investigation.

“I have no information,” he said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan also said he was unaware of the probe.

The owner of Unique International Duty Free, Seng Taing, yesterday told the Post he did provide goods for the Cambodian Embassy, but claimed the transactions were all above board.

Taing, who was born in Cambodia but moved in 1980 to Australia, where he is now a citizen, rebuffed the suggestion he had skimmed some A$200,000 from selling on the goods. “No, I do the right thing,” he said. “It is nothing to do with me . . . the Australian government allows [the Cambodian diplomats] to buy to the limit.”

“My store is duty free; the government allows me to sell tax free,” he added, declining to comment further.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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