Phnom Penh court begins trial of four for smuggling ‘uranium’ from Vietnam

The facade of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Licadho
The facade of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Licadho

A bizarre trial involving four men accused of smuggling uranium from Vietnam – despite the seeming impossibility of the liquid solvent in question actually being the highly radioactive metallic element – began yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

What’s more, despite the accusation implying that a tightly regulated toxic material sought by terrorists had been spirited into Cambodia from a neighbouring country, authorities yesterday said that they have still not tested the substance nearly a year and a half since the men were arrested.

Chea Yu, a 44-year-old construction worker, was charged with the crime of possessing a substance used to produce chemical, nuclear, biological or radioactive weapons. Chan Thoeun, Tit Raksmey, and Dy Vibol were named as accomplices. Each of the men faces five to 10 years in prison.

“What was the substance? What was your master plan? Where did you want to destroy?” Presiding Judge Than Leng asked Yu, who professed that allegations the substance was “uranium” were news to him.

Yu claimed he was given the substance by a man in Vietnam only identified as “Mai”, who put Yu in touch with Thoeun to find buyers for the liquid.

Mai had told Yu the substance was an “acid used to test gold” that was worth $400,000 per litre, though a police report read in court stated that authorities believed the substance was uranium.

“I took it from him and brought it to Chan Thoeun to find buyers,” Yu testified.

The substance was transported in plastic water bottles in liquid form. Uranium, a metal, enters a liquid state at 1,132 degrees Celsius. Enriched uranium is used in nuclear reactors and to create atomic weapons.

Neither Cambodia nor Vietnam is known to have the capacity to enrich uranium.

Thoeun, a motodop, said he met Raksmey, a farmer, in a Phnom Penh café. The latter then connected with taxi driver Dy Vibol. Eventually, the group of four found buyers in Stung Treng province, and met them along with five others on August 30, 2016.

“We did the test on the substance by putting a small nail on a plate and pouring the acid on it. The small nail dissolved. While we were testing, the police came and arrested us. But they did not arrest the buyers and five other people,” Vibol said.

Still, Judge Leng questioned the defendants’ description of the substance’s alleged purpose, wondering how any gold merchant would be able to afford an acid test that expensive.

The four defence lawyers, meanwhile, maintained there was no evidence that the substance is a banned chemical.

“If my client and others had uranium or a poisonous substance, they would have already died, and the police also would have died. The police cannot prove it was a poisonous substance,” said Eng Sothea, who is representing Thoeun.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to the toxic and radioactive element is known to cause kidney damage and has also been linked to various cancers.

Ministry of Interior official Hy Pru, who headed the operation against the four suspects, declined to elaborate on why the substance was suspected to be uranium.

“The substance has been transferred to the Ministry of Defence for testing, so please contact them,” he said.

An official at the National Authority for Chemical Weapons, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also said the substance has not been tested.

“We don’t have the equipment to test it. We requested to get it tested at the [Cambodian Mine Action Center], but CMAC also doesn’t have the equipment,” he said.

A verdict in the case is due on January 25.