A recent stiff sentence against a former senior public official for corruption was applauded by civil society and seen as a deterrence to others within the nation’s bureaucratic ranks.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Yi Sokvouch sentenced Lay Samneang, former deputy chief of the Finance and Supply Department at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation, to three years in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 200 million riel ($25,000). Samneang’s property was also seized, on charges of public fund embezzlement and money-laundering.

According to the July 5 verdict, the 53-year-old had embezzled over $380,000 while serving as the department’s deputy chief.

The ruling, observers said, signalled the ongoing battle against graft.

Pech Pisey, executive director of Transparency International (TI) Cambodia, emphasised the significance of the verdict, noting the pivotal role of the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in carrying out their duties.

“The sentencing of the official served as a vitally important example to other officials who may have been involved or who have intended to commit corruption,” he said.

Pisey further suggested the potential deterrent effect of the sentence.

“Other officials could be concerned and afraid after learning of this sentence. If there is evidence of corruption, they could be punished. Therefore, the case could be seen as a reminder to other officials,” he said.

He called for the ACU to sustain its efforts in the fight against corruption, particularly in the scrutiny of cases that come under widespread public discussion or media coverage.

The court’s verdict is open to an appeal should the defendant choose to challenge the sentence.

Back on January 11 of this year, deputy prosecutor Sam Rithy Veasna spearheaded an investigation into Samnang in connection with a corruption case that closed after more than 13 months of investigation by the ACU.

Under articles 597 and 598 of the Criminal Code, along with Article 32 of the Anti-Corruption Law and Article 38 of the Law on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism, Samneang was charged for embezzlement of over $380,000. The case also implicated him in mishandling funds intended for nearly 4,000 individuals, mostly the disabled and economically disadvantaged, raising suspicions of money laundering.

Samneang’s career spanned various roles. From 1993 to 2002, he headed the Development Office at the Department of Rural Development in Ba Phnom district, Prey Veng province. From 2002 to 2007, he coordinated the sub-national reform programme in the province. His climb culminated in his role as an official at the Finance and Supply Department at the Ministry of Social Affairs between 2012 and 2013.

In 2014, he ascended to the deputy chief role. His career trajectory took a dark turn in May 2021, when he was suspended over allegations of embezzlement.