An official with the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) was found guilty on corruption charges yesterday but will go free after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court suspended his two-year prison sentence.
Judge Ros Piseth did not explain why he suspended the sentence, but observers yesterday said the leniency called into question the government’s commitment to fighting graft.
Chhim Piseth, 52, was involved in processing business applications for foreign and domestic investors at the CDC – the country’s highest body overseeing investment. He was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in April for allegedly demanding bribes from investors to process their paperwork, with the ACU saying at the time that Piseth’s crime “dramatically affects the trust of people and the public in the leadership of the government”.
However, the court yesterday declined to enforce Piseth’s prison sentence, instead fining him 4 million riel (about $1,000) for “misappropriation of public funds” and ordering him to return $1,500 to an unnamed company. He will also be given back 20 million riel that he had paid to post bail.
It remained unclear whether Piseth – who was not present for yesterday’s hearing due to illness – had been formally removed from his position. When reached for comment yesterday, CDC head Sok Chenda Sorphea hung up on a reporter.
Yim Visoth, defence attorney for Piseth, declined to comment on the case, citing professional ethics.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said the public would likely have doubts about the court’s handling of the case.
“Corruption is a crime and a serious problem Cambodia has been facing,” Preap said. “We expect the law enforcement agencies, especially the court, to strictly enforce the law and punish corrupt officials according to the anti-corruption law.”
Last year, Cambodia was ranked the third-most corrupt country in the Asia Pacific – beating only North Korea and Afghanistan – in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
More recently, the credit rating giant Moody’s released an analysis saying that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s preoccupation with securing its electoral position had come at the expense of institution-building efforts, like tackling corruption – a position it deemed “credit-negative”.
However, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court recently suspended the sentences of several government officials found guilty of corruption. On July 20, the same judge, Ros Piseth, suspended the two-year prison sentences of two City Hall officials who were found guilty of corruption.
And on July 5, two Ministry of Mines and Energy officials found guilty of corruption also walked free after a judge gave them credit for time already served and suspended the rest of their sentences.
Ou Virak, the founder and president of the think tank Future Forum, said the decision to suspend Chhim Piseth’s sentence is part of an “ongoing pattern”.
“There seems to be a two-track system – one for the poor and one for the well-connected,” Virak said. “And I think that’s why people are frustrated.”
Virak said decisions like the one yesterday undermine the credibility of the court and the confidence of the public. He added that the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the body that oversees the judiciary, should be more active in reviewing such cases.