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Two linked to justice minister have chequered history, Panama Papers indicate

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Two linked to justice minister have chequered history, Panama Papers indicate

Two of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana’s alleged partners in an offshore business venture were accused of forging documents, impersonating advisers to US presidents and passing themselves off as UN affiliates, and were arrested shortly after their purported business relationship ended, a newly released document indicates.

On April 4, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) announced Vong Vathana was one of dozens of senior political figures around the world identified among documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca as having offshore business interests. Vong Vathana was listed as a shareholder in the British Virgin Islands-incorporated RCD International Ltd.

At 1am yesterday, the ICIJ published details of the 214,000 companies mentioned in the leak, including the names and addresses of their shareholders. Alongside Vong Vathana, four other shareholders were named as owning shares in RCD International from 2007 to 2010: Dr Soush Saroeun, Dr Lek Bopha and Dr Ray Chhat Dam, all Cambodian, and Arthur Chan Wai Kong, from Malaysia.

While there were minor discrepancies in the spelling of the names of Saroeun and Dam in the transcription of the handwritten register of interests found among the leaks, Saroeun confirmed in an interview yesterday that both were shareholders.

Saroeun and Dam last made headlines when they were arrested on December 18, 2010, on suspicion of fraud and forgery. An onshore company the pair shared in Cambodia, Asia Real Property – Office of International Treasury Control (ARP-OITC) had been passing itself off as an affiliate of the United Nations, had allegedly forged a letter of credit from HSBC and had claimed Dam was an adviser to US presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama. At the time, UN and US Embassy spokesmen denied any link with Dam or the company.

Their arrests came just over a month after RCD International was struck off the British Virgin Islands corporate register and declared inactive.

In 2006, the year before his name appeared alongside Vong Vathana’s on RCD International’s register of shareholders, Ray Chhat Dam was also sued by the mayor of an Ecuadorian town over an alleged advanced-fee scam.

RCD International shareholder Saroeun said yesterday afternoon that he had not been aware Vathana was a shareholder, and was also unable to comment on the company’s activities, saying he ultimately came to suspect it was not a “real company” and severed ties.

“He just told me he is the international master commitment holder,” Saroeun said of fellow shareholder Ray Chhat Dam, whose initials the company name bears.

Chhat Dam is also the self-appointed chairman of the United Nations Office of International Treasury Control (UNOITC), from which ARP-OITC, the company he shared with Saroeun until 2010, takes the second half of its acronym.

However, spokesmen for the intergovernmental organisation have repeatedly stressed that the UNOITC has nothing to do with the UN, despite Dam and associates’ protestations to the contrary.

A message sent yesterday afternoon to a Facebook profile bearing Dam’s name and photograph remained unseen and unanswered as of press time. The profile lists his profession as executive chairman of the OITC.

Ray Chhat Dam (left), chairman of ARP-OITC group, enters Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2010.
Ray Chhat Dam (left), chairman of ARP-OITC group, enters Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2010. Sovan Philong

It remains unclear what happened to the fraud charges against Chhat Dam and Saroeun. In February 2011, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech in Chat Dam’s reported home province of Banteay Meanchey in which he said he “found out that [Dam] really cheated, and then sent the case to the court and now he is in prison”.

Saroeun yesterday would say only that his legal situation was “clear”, and that authorities didn’t “have any problem” with him or Chhat Dam, who he believes left Cambodia in 2010.

Saroeun also identified fellow former RCD shareholder Lek Bopha as an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Sok An. While Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan was unable to confirm this, a Council for the Development of Cambodia PDF dated 2013 does list a Mr Lek Bopha as an adviser to the Council of Ministers.

The chequered past of Vong Vathana’s alleged business associates raised serious questions, observers said yesterday.

Political analyst Ou Virak said the justice minister’s obligation to perform due diligence when entering into commercial partnerships was greater than that of an ordinary citizen and called for an inquiry into how Vong Vathana came to be doing business with suspected fraudsters.

“We have to have an investigation into why was he doing it. Why was this the case? Was he unfortunately named or was he a willing party in all of this?” Virak said, adding that he doubted such an investigation would take place. “I don’t have confidence in the political system.”

San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, echoed Virak’s sentiments in an email last night, saying the public’s eyes are on the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in expectation that it will open an investigation. He similarly added that he had only a “minor hope” that it would.

ACU director Om Yentieng said in April that he was considering opening an investigation into Vong Vathana’s alleged offshore business dealings. Representatives of the ACU were not reachable for comment yesterday and government spokesman Phay Siphan did not respond to further inquiries last night as to whether an investigation is planned.

It remains unclear what Vong Vathana’s level of involvement in RCD International was. Both he and Justice Ministry spokesmen have vigorously denied any connection to the company, and spokesmen yesterday declined multiple invitations to comment on the fresh evidence published by the ICIJ.

Ou Virak said he found it unlikely Vong Vathana is the only public official in Cambodia to have been mixed up with unfortunate business partners.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is actually something that’s going on with other officials,” Virak said. “But again, we don’t know. It’s something that I think needs to be addressed and I think the government needs to show that they’re taking measures to make sure that these things are addressed.”

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