Two Ministry of Mines officials were convicted on corruption charges yesterday in a Phnom Penh court after confessing to selling state land, but nonetheless walked free after a judge reduced their sentences.
Preah Vihear department head Kong Makara and co-defendant Nuon Phally, head of the department’s financial office, each confessed to selling the plot of land in 2013 to Yan Sothea for around $62,000. They alleged 14 others were involved, 11 of whom also confessed in court to accepting money from the sale but are not facing any charges.
Despite originally facing charges of “intentional destruction and embezzlement”, which carry five- to 10-year prison sentences, Prosecutor Ngin Pich suggested last week that the charges be reduced to “unlawful exploitation”, which under the law deals with public servants’ conflicts of interest, and which only carries a two- to five-year prison term.
Judge Theam Chanpiseth heeded Pich’s request, handing down a two-year sentence, but letting the duo off on time already served – around eight months. “The rest of the sentence is suspended,” Chanpiseth said.
At a hearing last week, the officials said that they sold around 1,000 square metres from a large plot of land close to the ministry’s Preah Vihear offices to Sothea, who lived nearby. While Makara kept $10,000, Phally got $5,000 from the transaction, with the rest of the group getting between $2,500 and $4,500 from the sale.
They claimed the money was to clear the department’s debt, buy materials for its operations and to distribute the remainder among the officials working there.
The judge ordered the land returned to the state, but only about $5,800 was confiscated from the officials.
Only Phally was present during the verdict announcement and did not speak to the media as he made his way into a prison vehicle after the hearing.
The purchaser, Sothea, was also absent from court. But his wife said the verdict was unjust as they did not get back the money they paid for the land.
“I spent a lot of money. There were signatures from the village chief, commune chief and town chief [for the sale]. There has to be compensation for me,” she said, requesting anonymity.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for rights group Licadho, said that the light sentences were emblematic of a broader trend in which government officials and those close to the ruling party are often dealt lesser charges than they actually deserve.
“So the charges are different for people who work in the government, and those who are not in the government get heavier charges,” he said.
Sam Ath added that while Makara was indeed culpable as the department’s head, the other officials who accepted the money should be tried as well.