Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nhek Bun Chhay arrested over decade-old drug case

Nhek Bun Chhay arrested over decade-old drug case

KNUP leader Nhek Bun Chhay speaks to the press before commencing a party rally in May in Phnom Penh.
KNUP leader Nhek Bun Chhay speaks to the press before commencing a party rally in May in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Nhek Bun Chhay arrested over decade-old drug case

Khmer National United Party (KNUP) leader and former General Nhek Bun Chhay was arrested in Phnom Penh yesterday in relation to a 2007 drug bust in Kampong Speu province – a dramatic acceleration in a fall from grace that began with an alleged flirtation with the opposition in June.

Bun Chhay was arrested yesterday at noon at his home in Chroy Changvar district, and was taken to the municipal police headquarters, with a Phnom Penh Municipal Court arrest warrant accusing him of conspiracy to produce drugs and of importing drug components in relation to a major drug bust in April 2007.

National Police Deputy Chief Mok Chito and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak both confirmed the arrest, saying it was linked to a drug-related case, but declined to offer details.

“The warrant was issued by the Phnom Penh court and the case is now with the Phnom Penh Municipal Police,” Chito said yesterday, declining to comment further.

However, a senior police official, who requested anonymity, said the arrest was over a 2007 drug case, and said that it was linked to another 2012 bust of a drug production racket as well.

Following the arrest yesterday, Sopheak said Bun Chhay was taken into custody for a 2012 drug case, but could not be reached later in the day for clarification.

The senior official added that 17 other people were involved in the case and their fortunes rested on Bun Chhay’s questioning.

“Wait to see how Grandfather Chhay answers. This story is very big,” he said.

Bun Chhay was at the receiving end of the government’s displeasure after the leak of an alleged phone call to CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang in which he appeared to offer votes to the CNRP in communes that the KNUP was not contesting.

Despite denying he had intended to speak to Chhay Eang or colluded to offer votes, the ex-royalist was abruptly stripped of his title as adviser to the government in June, with more than a dozen other party members meeting the same fate in the following weeks. The sacking came on the same day as what appeared to be a surrender of firearms from Bun Chhay to the Ministry of Defence.

Convicted drug producer and trafficker Chea Chong, 45, leaves the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh in 2011.
Convicted drug producer and trafficker Chea Chong, 45, leaves the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh in 2011. Photo supplied

The 2007 incident referred to by the police official took place in Kampong Speu’s Phnom Sruoch district, where two tonnes of “precursor” chemicals, including a reported 400 to 500 kilograms of chloroephedrine, were seized at a clandestine operation posing as a cow farm. In all, 14 were arrested. At the same time, police stormed a house in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district where they found another tonne of precursors and arrested a 28-year-old Chinese woman.

Chea Chung – an adviser to Bun Chhay when the latter was co-defence minister in the Funcinpec-CPP coalition government – was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in the high-profile case, with others implicated as well.
Bun Chhay was linked to the case for allegedly owning the land where the drug racket was based in Kampong Speu, but in an interview with The Post in 2007, he distanced himself from Chung and denied owning the land.

The 2012 case, meanwhile, was an apparent reference to a raid in the same district in Kampong Speu in which around 1,000 litres of precursor chemicals stored in 82 tanks used for methamphetamine production were seized from a warehouse While KNUP spokesman Run Meatra could not be reached for comment yesterday, Chong Chuoy, a party councillor from Thma Puok commune in Banteay Meanchey, refused to believe the accusations and said the arrest must have been linked to the CNRP call.

“This is intimidation for the party,” he said. “This took place only after his conversation with the opposition.”

Political analyst Cham Bunteth said the circumstances leading up to the arrest of Bun Chhay were baffling, and while the alleged phone call to the CNRP could be one of the reasons, he speculated there had to be more happening behind the scenes.

“I don’t know why they are targeting people that they have worked with so nicely for all this time,” he said. “To bring a case against a [former] deputy prime minister who you have been working with – I am speechless.”

He said the modus operandi of resurrecting an old case was not surprising, as it had been done with others who had rubbed the government the wrong way – perhaps most visibly in the case of the legal troubles faced by self-exiled former opposition president Sam Rainsy.

He said if the move was to send a message to Hun Sen’s allies to remain loyal ahead of the next elections, it could have the opposite effect.

“They may bow their head before you, but they will be doing something behind your back,” he said. “I don’t think Prime Minister Hun Sen will do this to get loyalty. You don’t get loyalty from fear and hate.”

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