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In Fisheries Office Fraud, Impunity Worries

The office of the fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture sits on nearly one hectare of land on Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. The large office building has been a workplace for fisheries officials since 1979.

The building and the land underneath it—worth millions of dollars in today’s real estate market—became the focus of an expansive investigation by police and military police this week, after they arrested 18 people allegedly involved in a scheme to sell the land through forged government documents.

Now the people who work in and around the office say they fear the alleged perpetrators, some of whom are a part of the government, will be released.

Inside the fisheries office compound on Thursday evening, Pom Sok Hot, a 27-year-old staff administrator, was incensed at the attempted sale.

“If someone is found not guilty, he should be released. But any person found to be involved in forging government documents should not be released,” she said. “If the person found guilty is released, that is injustice.”

Nearby, a roadside motorcycle repairman, Soeung Rithy, 39, said he worried that powerful and wealthy people would be released.

“Frankly speaking, I’m afraid there could be corruption,” he said.

RCAF Lt. Col. Saphon Dara was charged at Phnom Penh Municipal Court Wednesday with document forgery. His mother, Neang Sovanny, was charged in absentia for the same crime. Seventeen others, including Lt. Col. Men Vichet, deputy commander of RCAF infantry, and three other military officers, were charged with the use of forged documents.

A military policeman told VOA Khmer on condition of anonymity that Saphon Dara was found with a forged letter purporting to come from the Council of Ministers and offering a sale of the fisheries office.

Copies of the letter were distributed to Phnom Penh land brokers seeking buyers for the office, and one copy found its way to Men Vichet, the policeman alleged.

Offers to buy the land would have been tempting. Land situated on main boulevards, such as Norodom, command a high price in Phnom Penh’s booming real estate market.

Soeng Bunna, who owns Bunna Realty Group, said Friday land on the main boulevards, attractive for large business developments or even embassy construction, fetches up to $4,000 per square meter.

That means the fisheries department land, which is nearly 9,000 square meters, could have been worth up to $36 million.

By last week, reports of the fraudulent letter had reached Prime Minister Hun Sen, who ordered authorities to find the forgers and arrest them.

On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, police and military police called in 22 people for questioning, sending 18 to the courts, along with Saphon Dara, who was arrested Monday.

Police are still searching for Neang Sovanny.