In April this year, Srok commune chief Seang Chet got a call from his district superior asking him to come to the Kampong Siem district office to sort out a dispute – sewage was running through someone else’s yard, he was told, according to his wife.
It was just the kind of neighbourhood problem the father of five was good at handling. Since being elected in 2012, the Sam Rainsy Party member had won the admiration and respect of even some local CPP supporters, who, though wishing not to be named, were among villagers who described the local official as “friendly” and “generous”.
The problem for Chet, however, was there was no local dispute waiting at the nearby office.
Instead, the commune chief found himself confronted by officials from the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU).
“The next time I saw him was [at the ACU] in Phnom Penh,” his wife Sreng Sokhoeun recalled at the family’s home last month.
“He told me to take care of the children. That was the last thing he said.”
Chet has now spent almost six months in detention for allegedly offering a $500 bribe to the family of hairdresser Khom Chandaraty – the purported mistress of CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha – to lie about her alleged affair with the opposition leader.
On Tuesday this week, Chet burst into tears when meeting with opposition officials at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, according to one of the lawmakers present.
“He said he wanted to be free and see his family, especially because of Pchum Ben,” lawmaker Keo Phirum said.
“He’s done nothing wrong, but still he is kept in Prey Sar. The court has already decided about the sentence for Kem Sokha, so he and the other human rights defenders, they should not be kept and made to spend their days in jail.”
According to his lawyer, Sam Sokong, the investigation into the case concluded two weeks ago, though a trial date had not been set. He was not hopeful that case would be dropped, given its political nature.
“They will not drop the charge,” he said.
His case is one of several aggressively pursued by the ACU who, along with officers from the Interior Ministry’s anti-terror police, investigated the opposition leader’s alleged affair, which came to light via covertly recorded telephone conversations leaked online.
Together with Chet, four workers from rights group Adhoc and a former member of the organisation turned election official have been detained for a separate case of so-called bribery.
Meanwhile, two opposition lawmakers face “prostitution” offences, while Sokha himself was on September 9 sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to submit to questioning over the case, which has been widely slammed as a political attack via the courts.
Since reversing her story, admitting to the affair and implicating Chet and the other defendants – a U-turn that followed authorities accusing her of prostitution – Chandaraty, also known by her nickname Srey Mom, has gone to ground.
Speaking from their home, less than 100 metres from Chet’s house, Chandaraty’s mother, Sean Hoy, a 58-year-old farmer, claimed she had not heard from her daughter since seeing her in Phnom Penh in March.
“I just want to know she’s OK,” the mother of four said, saying she had no idea whether her daughter was involved with the opposition leader.
Hoy said there was no ill will with Chet’s family, who were in fact in-laws. She recalled being called to the commune chief’s house by his wife, Sokhoeun, who offered the money and mentioned it could help her daughter go abroad for a while to escape the growing heat of the investigation.
But she refused, explaining: “I did not know where the money came from, so I did not dare to take it.”
Back at Chet’s home, after giving a similar account of the five-minute meeting, Sokhoeun repeated the opposition’s claim: that the money was from donors abroad who, sympathetic to Chandaraty’s plight, wanted to help. “There were no conditions,” Sokhoeun said.
She said that since Chet’s imprisonment, the family’s finances have suffered, explaining they were struggling to meet hefty repayments on a loan to buy two trucks, used for the family’s trading business. “Please help get his freedom,” Chet’s mother, Youn Sim, 74, said, grabbing a reporter’s hand.
Around the commune, while many said they had no opinion on the politics behind Chet’s case, there was general agreement that he was sorely missed in his role as chief.
Recalling Chet had helped oversee road and irrigation projects, Chea Horm, a member of the local pagoda committee, said the official had never asked for any money to process documents, a claim backed up by several residents interviewed.
“When he is not here, the villagers miss him,” Horm said.Farmer Oun Ath said Chet had helped pay for her father’s funeral went he died unexpectedly last year and had also donated food and water, something the local official also did when 34-year-old En Chan’s mother passed away. “No one dislikes him, and when poor people go to his house and ask for rice, he would give them five to 10 kilograms,” Chan said.
Sitting outside her small wooden home, 38-year-old potato farmer Mov Theng said she hoped Chet would still be chief if he was released. “I don’t care if he’s in jail, I’ll still vote for him,” she said.