Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Escaped Drug Trafficker Re-Captured, But “His Influence Was Everything” Inside Prison

Police display a group of arrested suspects who allegedly helped the Taiwanese drug trafficker Chen Hsin Han escape from prison, during a press conference on August 23, 2023. (BTV)
Police display a group of arrested suspects who allegedly helped the Taiwanese drug trafficker Chen Hsin Han escape from prison, during a press conference on August 23, 2023. (BTV)

On Tuesday evening police captured a Taiwanese drug trafficker who had escaped from prison with the help of a group of masked gunmen last week during a supervised visit to a dentist’s office.

So far 11 people — the majority Khmer-Americans, along with Taiwanese and a Turkish national — have been arrested in connection with the trafficker Chen Hsin Han’s escape, the National Police reported. Han had been incarcerated since 2009.

“When he escaped, he [Han] wanted to leave for Thailand and Laos but we cut off the means and connection, so he did not know where to go and came to Phnom Penh,” Deputy National Police Chief Mok Chito said in the press conference at National Police Headquarters in Phnom Penh.

“He commanded his group outside to do activities and he has his wife who sent the money to hire the people,” Chito added.

Despite Han’s re-arrest, the drug trafficker had built up considerable power during his  years behind bars, according to two former inmates who were held at the same Siem Reap provincial prison and spoke with CamboJA anonymously for their safety.

“His [Han’s] influence was everything — he was able to do whatever he wanted,” one former inmate recalled. “He was able to live a very comfortable lifestyle in the prison, with the money that he gave to the police.”

Han used bribery to gain perks while incarcerated, including an air conditioning unit, better meals, alcohol, ready access to phones, sets of Air Jordan shoes, a flat screen TV and even the purchase of a basketball hoop to use in the prison yard, according to his fellow prisoners. 

Guards would collect Han’s phones from him before periodic searches from outside authorities for contraband and then return the phones to him afterwards, both former inmates recalled.

“It was like he had everyone in his pocket,” the second former inmate said.

Through his access to Whatsapp, Han was able to coordinate the logistics of heroin trafficking from his prison cell, an indictment against Han filed in Taiwanese court alleges, RFA reported

“The guards were open to bribery by anyone with money. Guards were happy to supplement their meager salaries,” the second former inmate said. “In the foreigner prison section [where Han was kept] almost anything was possible.”

Police and media have reported that Han was serving a combined 52 year prison sentence. But the two former inmates claimed that Han had paid to have his prison time reduced, which Deputy National Police Chief Chito denied.

“Inside prison walls, life is dominated by corruption,” states human rights NGO Licadho, which regularly monitors 18 Cambodian prisons, including in Siem Reap. “There is a price tag attached to every imaginable…Those who can’t afford to pay are forced to endure the most squalid conditions.”

Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) gave Cambodia the lowest score in the region, noting that the country’s legal system is the primary source of corruption. Amnesty International has also noted that bribes to prison guards can occur inside Cambodian prisons. Prisoners could pay bribes to receive early release, Radio Free Asia reported in 2013.

The director of the Siem Reap provincial prison, Phean Chhorvan, denied allegations that Han had been given any special privileges and said that all prisoners were treated equally, noting that bribery was prohibited.

“Detention has all the same conditions [for everyone], there is no use of any money, on the other hand, as far as other affairs are concerned,” Chhorvan said.

Chhorvan said authorities “follow the procedure” when sending Han to receive healthcare at a clinic outside the prison. But one of the former inmates said the only way Han could have received this kind of treatment was by paying extra to prison staff.

Chhum Chenda, the owner of the dental clinic where Han had escaped from, said Han had not been handcuffed, presumably because “it might have affected other patients’ feelings.” It was the third time Han had received treatment at the clinic, Chenda noted.

Han was scheduled to visit the clinic to receive treatment for a toothache, according to documents issued by the prison.

A group of five gunmen stormed in and pulled his four guards into a separate room while Han ran away, CCTV footage shows. 

US Embassy spokesperson Katherine M. Diop said US authorities were “monitoring the situation” and provide consular support to US citizens arrested abroad, but referred CamboJA to Cambodian law enforcement for further information.

Deputy National Police Chief Chito claimed Han had been planning his escape for more than two months. Police had not yet completed their investigation into all the suspects and especially the suppliers of the weapons, he added. 

“The gun was not from the USA, there were people managing it here,” Chito said. “We know where the guns came from, we are pursuing the guns’ owner.”

During the press conference, nine of the arrested suspects were lined up to have their photos taken by the media. 

But, in a live video recording from state-run Bayon TV shared on Facebook, a female suspect spoke out in English against the arrest.

“It’s not true. You can’t take a photo of me like this. It’s a scam, do you really believe they hired all these people to rescue someone?” she shouted. 

Deputy National Police Chief Chito would later describe the situation as a “normal thing” and said the suspect would have the right to “speak at the court.”

A police officer stepped forward and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder, telling her to be quiet.

“Don’t believe it,” she said, as she was led away.