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District police chief charged over release of suspected smugglers

Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks with National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun at a ceremony to hand over vehicles to provincial police commissariats, at the Interior Ministry on Tuesday. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
Interior Minister Sar Kheng speaks with National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun at a ceremony to hand over vehicles to provincial police commissariats, at the Interior Ministry on Tuesday. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

A district police chief in Battambang province was charged under human trafficking laws and sent to pre-trial detention on Tuesday after being stood down on Monday over the improper release of two suspected smugglers, officials said.

Kim Ponlork was charged under Article 11 of the law, for unlawfully transferring people across the border, according to a warrant issued by the Battambang provincial Court. The crime carries prison sentence up 15 to 20 years for officials.

“The former district police chief was charged for unlawfully bringing people across the border and placed in pre-trial detention,” said Chea Chanreaksmey, spokeswoman for the court.

According to the warrant, Ponlork 46, committed the crime on February 8 and in January.

Ponlork was stood down on Monday evening, hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for border officials to be on high alert at the border as Cambodians continue to stream home amid increased fear of the coronavirus and less work opportunities in Thailand.

The former district police chief had been accused of improperly releasing two people arrested for smuggling Cambodian migrants across the border from Thailand, evading compulsory Covid-19 tests and quarantine. 

One of the two released smugglers had been rearrested; the other had fled to Thailand, Battambang provincial police chief Sat Kimsan said.

More than 35,000 people have been quarantined at the border since a new wave of returnees followed a Covid-19 outbreak in December.

Cambodia has recorded just 479 Covid-19 cases in total since the pandemic began – including a cluster of at least 89 at the border – with no deaths and all but 10 recovered.

Prime Minister Hun Sen stripped the Kamrieng district police chief of his ranks and expelled him from the National Police, said a sub-decree issued by the government on Monday evening.

“I issued an order, please, all officials implementing the law must restrict ringleaders who bring people across the border without quarantining,” Hun Sen said earlier in a speech posted to his Facebook page earlier in the day.

Earlier Tuesday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said that police were investigating whether Ponlork worked alone.

“We are investigating the case more,” as other officials might be involved, he told reporters after a ceremony at the ministry on Tuesday. “If we see relevant documents, we will act on them according to law.”

Ponlork had violated his duty by releasing the suspected smugglers without approval of his superiors, Kheng said to police officials assembled for the hand over of new vehicles to 19 provincial police commissariats.

“This is an experience that we must all study and learn from together. It is also a mirror for [us to look at] together,” the interior minister said in his address.

Of 35,665 Cambodians who have returned via official means since a Covid-19 outbreak in Thailand in December, 11,857 are in quarantine with the remainder completed the 14-days and tested negative, Hun Sen said – but it remains unknown how many have evaded officials.

Yin Mengly, Battambang provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that with heavy security at the border and migrants being funneled towards official checkpoints, it was possible that other official were working with smugglers.

“There are joint forces standing by at corridor checkpoints, is it possible to have relevant officials involved with the releasing of smugglers?” he asked.

Mengly condemned the police chief for risking Cambodia’s good work in having largely avoided the coronavirus pandemic.

“If we think deeply about freeing smugglers, it has serious impacts for the nation in regard to spreading the virus,” he said.

A total of 2,122 people have been vaccinated for the virus since the first shipment of 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine arrived by donation from China, with 556 people turned away due to existing health issues, the Health Ministry said Monday.

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