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February 21, 2024

Former Cambodian minister linked to company at heart of monkey-smuggling probe

Veng Sakhon, who until October this year was Cambodia’s agriculture minister, flew to Seoul in August to sign a memorandum of understanding with a biomedical firm targeted by U.S. authorities over the smuggling of long-tailed macaques.

He was the guest of Orient Bio Inc., South Korea’s largest producer of animals for laboratory experiments. Twelve months earlier, a senior Orient Bio executive pleaded guilty to lying to special agents from the U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service investigating illicit exports of macaques from Cambodia to America.

Two senior officials from Cambodia’s Forestry Administration (FA) – a department within the Agriculture Ministry – were charged by federal prosecutors in Florida last month with having facilitated illegal macaque exports from Cambodia to the U.S. between December 2017 and January 2022. 

Kry Masphal, director of the Forestry Administration’s Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity, was arrested on Nov. 16 while flying through New York’s Kennedy International Airport on this way to a conference on the trade in endangered species. He was indicted alongside his boss, FA Director General Keo Omaliss, who remains free in Cambodia.

At a court hearing in Florida this morning, Judge Kathleen Williams ordered that Kry be released today to spend the Christmas weekend at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington. From there, he is due to be transferred to Virginia, where he will be placed under house arrest in the home of an as-yet unidentified family to be compensated by the embassy. 

Allusions to Veng

The indictment makes two allusions to Veng’s involvement in the alleged scheme and mentions two unindicted co-conspirators – U.S. companies “engaged in the importation and sale of non-human primates, including long-tailed macaques.” 

Neither company is named, but one, whose place of business is given as Alice, Texas, bears a striking resemblance to Orient BioResource Center Inc., or OBRC, which was a wholly owned subsidiary of Orient Bio for the duration of the smuggling allegations contained within the indictment.

The final illegal act alleged by U.S. prosecutors against Kry and Keo took place on Jan. 26. The following day, Orient Bio sold OBRC to Nasdaq-listed Inotiv Inc. for $28 million. The sale agreement was signed by Orient Bio’s CEO, Jae Jin Chang, and Gary Tucker, OBRC’s vice president, the senior executive who had pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents just months earlier.

Kry was arrested on Nov. 16. The next day Inotiv released a statement disclosing that its “principal supplier of non-human primates … along with two Cambodian officials” had been charged with conspiring to illegally import non-human primates into the U.S. It went on to note that Orient BioResearch Center had been served with grand jury subpoenas in November 2021 “requiring the production of documents and information related to their importation of [non-human primates] into the United States.”

Guilty plea

Just months earlier, Tucker had pleaded guilty to charges of lying to special agents from the U.S. Fisheries & Wildlife Service during a July 2019 interview about “his involvement in the procurement of long-tailed macaques” from Southeast Asia.

Both Tucker’s guilty plea and sentencing were publicized by the U.S. Department of Justice in two press releases released a year before Veng signed the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Orient Bio on Aug. 1. The Justice Department statements both noted that Tucker’s deception had centered on OBRC’s activities in the Kingdom.

The agents had asked Tucker whether he or any other OBRC employees had prepared reports on their visits to macaque suppliers in Cambodia. He denied that any such reports existed, which turned out to be a lie.

“In fact, as defendant well knew, preparation and submission of site visit reports was a standard procedure at OBRC,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“Defendant was well aware of issues … related to wild-caught primates being ‘laundered’ through purported captive-breeding facilities and ultimately being exported and sold from their countries of origin under false documentation,” the prosecutors added.

ENG_KHM_VengSakhon.2 (1).jpg
Then-Cambodian Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon signs a memorandum of understanding with Orient Bio Inc. in Seoul, South Korea, in August. Credit: CPP

Cambodia-Orient Bio MOU

According to a Cambodian People’s Party announcement, the MOU between the Ministry of Agriculture and Orient Bio was “primarily aimed to establish the cooperation on training human resources in the agriculture sector … to help increase the capacity of production and productivity.”

The case against Tucker was led by U.S. Attorney Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald, who is also heading up the case against Keo and Kry.

Neither Tucker nor his lawyers responded to multiple requests for comment.

Veng appears to be referenced twice in the indictment. First, the prosecutor alleges that FA Director Keo Omaliss was described in a May 4, 2018, email as trying to “persuade his superior to allow collection of the needed monkeys.” As the FA is a department of the Agriculture Ministry, Veng would have been Keo’s immediate superior at that time.

An email purportedly from the following month is subsequently alleged to have relayed a claim by Keo that “the minister had approved and issued the collection quota” for long-tailed macaques. More broadly, the indictment repeatedly alleges unnamed Agriculture Ministry employees participated in the collection and laundering of wild monkeys.

Three days after his sacking, Veng – who did not respond to a request for comment – was appointed delegate minister attached to the prime minister.

Since then, court records show the Cambodian government has retained at least seven lawyers to defend Kry in Florida and New York. Four were previously employed as prosecutors by the U.S. Department of Justice, while another was deputy general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Agriculture Ministry denial

Agriculture Minister Dith Tina has been adamant that there has been no monkey smuggling.

Kry’s defense counsel have been working closely with Cambodian Ambassador Keo Chhea to get Kry released on bail into the embassy’s custody where, they say, he would be better able to prepare his defense.

In a court filing earlier this month, prosecutor Watts-Fitzgerald raised the possibility that the Cambodian government might help Kry to flee the country ahead of trial.

Exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy believes the government is afraid of what Kry might say if found guilty.

“Cambodian authorities now fear that Kry Masphal may be about to spill the beans if he is judged by an independent court outside of Cambodia, such as in the US,” Sam wrote in a tweet. “So, Cambodia’s government absolutely wants to get Kry Masphal back, by first having him transferred to Cambodia’s embassy in Washington. Then they will help him ‘flee the country’ as feared by US prosecutors.”

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