For the past 18 months, Gregg Fryett, a 47-year-old British businessman, has been languishing in pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.
Mr. Fryett claims the initial charges laid against him—illegally clearing forestland in Banteay Meanchey province—were spurious, and that the ensuing charges—creating and using public documents to illegally purchase land—were fabricated on the orders of Judge Ang Mealaktei in an attempt to protect powerful people with claims to the land.
It is no surprise that Mr. Fryett, facing charges that could land him 15 years in prison, would point the finger at a judicial official and scream “corrupt.”
But he is not alone.
In a July 2012 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, then-Banteay Meanchey Governor Oung Oeun wrote that a trio of provincial officials, including Judge Mealaktei, then the provincial court director and the investigating judge in the case, had colluded to “illegally” confiscate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of machinery belonging to Mr. Fryett’s company, International Green Energy (IGE).
Mr. Oeun writes that the trio—including Vann Sophanna, chief of the Forestry Administration’s Northern Tonle Sap Inspectorate, and Tou Theanty, a former deputy provincial governor—had “used the name of his Excellency Deputy Prime Minister Yim Chhayly to threaten to stop and confiscate all heavy machinery…without judicial approval.”
Those officials had moved to seize the IGE equipment just weeks after the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) froze the assets of its parent company, Sustainable Agro Energy, after doubts arose about the feasibility of IGE’s operations in Cambodia. The SFO’s investigation is ongoing.
In his letter, the Banteay Meanchey governor urges Mr. Hun Sen to take action against the three officials who confiscated the equipment, and asks that Judge Mealaktei be transferred.
“If this person [Judge Mealaktei] continues to work here it will cause serious difficulties for the local authorities and jurisdiction,” the letter says.
Judge Mealaktei, however, remained at the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court until April this year, when he was transferred to become director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
When Judge Mealaktei moved to Phnom Penh, he brought the case against Mr. Fryett and his associates with him.
Six months after the governor’s letter, in January 2013, two Cambodian-Americans employed by Mr. Fryett’s firm were arrested and charged with forging public documents and using them to purchase the land on which IGE was planning to grow jatropha plants, which produce oil that can be converted into biofuel.
Two months later, Mr. Fryett was arrested on the same charges, following an eight-month investigation by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU).
The 6,071 hectares of land the trio is accused of illegally acquiring belonged to Mao Malay, the wife of Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan, former commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
Through army General Hanh Chamrong, IGE reached an agreement in 2009 to farm the land in Svay Chek district. Gen. Chamrong has confirmed that an agreement was made and that an undisclosed amount of money changed hands.
But neither Gen. Chamrong nor Ms. Malay has been questioned in court over their role in the transfer.
“How is it possible, in a case where fake documents have allegedly been used to transfer land, that the seller and the agent have never been called to court,” Mr. Fryett said on Monday.
“We are the buyer, and when I met with the ACU after they began their investigation following the governor’s letter, they were of the position that we were the victims,” he said.
“However, at some point, something changed, and all of a sudden we became the bad guys.”
Mr. Fryett’s employees at IGE —Soeun Denny and Ourm Samnang—have been remanded to pretrial detention since their arrests.
Sok Sam Oeun, the lawyer for Mr. Denny and Mr. Samnang, has twice posted bail requests, citing the 18-month maximum term for pretrial detention, which expired in June.
Both requests have been denied.
On Monday, Mr. Fryett, Mr. Denny and Mr. Samnang were scheduled to appear before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in a joint hearing.
Mr. Fryett, however, has repeatedly rejected the court process. On Monday, he walked into the courtroom and handed the clerk a request for the recusal of all municipal court judges, who he says are operating under the influence of Judge Mealaktei, before quickly walking out and returning to his holding cell.
“After receiving the motion of recusal letter from Gregg Fryett and from the other suspects orally, the court decides that it cannot proceed with this case and must wait for a ruling from the Appeal Court,” Judge Chuon Soreasey told the court chamber before adjourning.
It was the third time the trial had been delayed, Judge Soreasey said later by telephone.
Mr. Fryett has also lodged complaints with the Supreme Court and the Appeal Court. Those filings also ask that the officials named in Mr. Oeun’s letter be brought before the court to explain their role in the case.
“If the governor saw fit to alert the prime minister to the actions of these people, surely the court is obliged to have them explain themselves,” Mr. Fryett said.
“The problem is, Ang Mealaktei is under pressure from some very powerful people to make this case go away,” he added. “Ang Mealaktei has had his hands on this case since the beginning, why can’t he let it go and let justice take its course?”
Judge Mealaktei declined this week to comment on the case. However, ACU Chairman Om Yentieng defended the judge’s decision to transfer the case from Banteay Meanchey to Phnom Penh and said Mr. Fryett’s claims against him mere delaying tactics.
“This is their pretext to block the hearing because if the hearing goes ahead, they would have no defense,” Mr. Yentieng said.
Mr. Oeun, the former provincial governor, could not be reached this week. However, last month he said that after drafting the letter to Mr. Hun Sen in 2012, he had reconsidered and decided not to send it.
“The letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Om Yentieng, I did not send that letter,” Mr. Oeun said. “I suspended it.”
Mr. Oeun said Ouk Keo Rattanak, the former provincial chief of administration, had ultimately sent the letter.
“I do not know why Ouk Keo Rattanak sent [the letter] to Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he said, declining to comment further.
Mr. Keo Rattanak was arrested by the ACU in January this year and charged with forging and selling a duplicate land title. The title was allegedly to one of the plots that Ms. Malay had agreed to sell to IGE.
This week, Mr. Keo Rattanak was in court alongside Mr. Fryett, Mr. Denny and Mr. Samnang. When asked about the charges against him, Mr. Keo Rattanak said he was clueless.
“I do not understand why they have arrested me,” he said.
When asked about Mr. Oeun’s letter that was sent to Mr. Hun Sen, he said: “I only drafted the letter. The provincial governor is the one who sent the letter to Samdech [Hun Sen] and I know nothing more about it.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy, Hay Pisey and Mech Dara)
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