Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday tried three former land management officials accused of extorting more than $384,000 from landowners in exchange for granting construction permits between 2016-2019 in Pursat province.
Presiding Judge Ly Sokleng identified the three accused as Liem Bunroeun, 39, former director of Pursat provincial land management department, Cheang Vuthy, 47, his deputy in charge of construction permit issuances, and Te Buntheng, 32, an administration official in charge of the One-Window services.
Judge Sokleng said that Bunroeun was charged with three counts: misappropriation of public funds under the Criminal Code, an abuse of power under the Anti-Corruption Law and money laundering under the laws concerning anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in jail.
Vuthy and Buntheng were charged with two counts: misappropriation of public funds and an abuse of power. If convicted, they face five years in jail each.
Judge Sokleng said that the trio was apprehended on July 26 last year by the Anti-Corruption Unit when they demanded $50,000 from a factory owner in exchange for granting a permit to construct his electricity facility in the province.
“When the factory owner bargained to lower the fee, the three men refused to issue a construction permit. They then increased their demand to $100,000 and asked for a deposit of $50,000,” he said, noting that the owner agreed to deposit $5,000 to Bunroeun and promised to pay the remainder the following day.
Judge Sokleng noted that the factory owner later lodged a complaint with ACU officials who then arrested the trio at a restaurant in Pursat province last year when they intended to collect a further $50,000.
He said that the ACU seized $50,000 from them and impounded another $79,000 from Bunthoeun’s office.
Judge Sokleng added that on July 31 last year, the investigating judge seized Bunroeun’s four villas in Phnom Penh and Pursat province, worth more than $280,000, and impounded his Lexus 570 and Kia Picanto cars, with a combined value of around $93,000.
Deputy court prosecutor Mr Chhay Hong said that since Bunroeun became the director of Pursat land management department in 2016, he allegedly amassed more than $384,000 through bribery; with the majority of the money coming from 140 construction permits.
He said that Vuthy and Buntheng, Bunroeun’s close colleagues, allegedly helped prepare necessary paperwork and documents.
“Vuthy and Buntheng could earn between $2,000 and $3,000 from the ill-gotten money in addition to their salaries every month,” Mr Hong said.
“Based on real evidence the ACU has collected and seized from them, as well as their confessions during the trial, on behalf of the court prosecutor I decide to uphold their charges. I would like to ask the Judges’ Council to seriously punish them in accordance with the law,” he added.
“I recommend the Judges’ Council claim Bunroeun’s four villas, two cars and further assets, which he gained through the ill-gotten money, as the state’s property,” he added.
During Friday’s trial, the trio admitted to committing the crimes, saying that they took bribes because their salaries were low. They said that they earned between $2,000 and $ 3,000 through bribes every month.
“I acknowledge that during my three years as director, I provided a total of 140 illegal services and received more than $270,000 through bribery,” Bunroeun told the court. “But I did not use the ill-gotten money just on myself, alone. I spent some of it on road repairs, irrigation system restoration, well-digging and health educational programmes for villagers and people living in impoverished areas or poor communities in Pursat province,” he said.
The three men pleaded for leniency, with Bunroeun citing health issues as a reason for the court to suspend or reduce his imminent jail sentence. “I am now living with diabetes and high blood pressure, so I ask the court to take that into account. I need to get medical treatment,” he said.
A verdict is due February 27.