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Corrupt officials admit selling government land for profit

Preah Vihear officials Nuon Phally (front, with newspaper) and Kong Makara (right, with newspaper) are escorted out of the Phnom Penh court after their trial on corruption charges yesterday.
Preah Vihear officials Nuon Phally (front, with newspaper) and Kong Makara (right, with newspaper) are escorted out of the Phnom Penh court after their trial on corruption charges yesterday. Niem Chheng

Corrupt officials admit selling government land for profit

The head of the Preah Vihear Provincial Department of Mines and Energy admitted to illegally selling a plot of government land for $62,400 in profit at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday, but called for a lighter sentence, claiming he used the money to help flood victims.

Provincial department head Kong Makara and co-defendant Nuon Phally, head of the department’s financial office, both testified that 14 other officials were also involved in the crime. Eleven other Mines Department officials admitted as much in court yesterday, saying they received money from the deal. However, none are facing charges, and a letter from the Mines Ministry presented in court said the body was aware of the case, but made no mention of legal or disciplinary action against the other officials.

“This land belonged to the state, but it was not registered yet. I filed the proposal to sell the land because the land was not in the state inventory,” defendant Makara testified. “I received $10,000, and I bought a motorbike for serving the institution . . . and helped the victims of a flood disaster and army families.”

Makara and Phally were both arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) in November for selling the plot of land, which is located adjacent to the department.

Phally told the court that the entire department agreed to sell the land in a meeting, and he was selected to pose as the seller.

“During the meeting, I was selected to represent as the landlord . . . I got $5,000. All the officials attending the meeting received money similarly, from $2,500 to $4,500,” Phally said.

In court, both the commune chief and the Preah Vihear town governor denied any involvement in the scam, claiming that they were duped into creating and authorising documents based on false information supplied by the defendants.

Yan Sothea, who bought the land, told the court that he was the real victim. He said that he could return the land to the state, but requested compensation since he spent tens of thousands of dollars on the land and had already built two flats

Eleven witnesses from the office also testified, all confirming the meeting and the scam, and all claiming to have received $2,000 in compensation. There are only 16 staffers at the provincial department, and the Ministry of Mines could not be reached yesterday as to what action, if any, it would take against those involved in the scheme.

Both of the defendants and their lawyers requested leniency from the court yesterday, with even the prosecutor recommending reduced charges.

Prosecutor Ngin Pich suggested changing the charge of “intentional destruction and embezzlement” to the lesser charge of “unlawful exploitation”, which carries a sentence of two to five years, as opposed to five to 10 for the greater charge.

“Because he has done many interesting humanitarian works and helped the officials, the prosecutor suggests changing the charge,” Pich said.

The call for leniency, however, was criticised yesterday by Preap Kol, head of anti-corruption group Transparency International Cambodia, who argued that the law must be enforced to prevent future corruption.

“It is important that the ACU enforces the anti-corruption law very objectively and indiscriminately if it seeks to effectively fight against corruption among public or government officials,” he said via email.

“Corrupt officials and others involved in the schemes must be held accountable according to their conducts and punished according to the laws.”

The court will deliver a verdict on July 4.

Additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson

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