Cambodian Embassy seeks bail for official implicated in monkey smuggling ring

Kry Masphal was arrested in New York on his way to a conference on the prevention of illegal wildlife trade.
By Jack Adamović Davies
2022.12.01
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Cambodian Embassy seeks bail for official implicated in monkey smuggling ring Cambodian official Kry Masphal has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with facilitating the smuggling of endangered long-tailed macaques, shown in this file photo.
Credit: Reuters

UPDATED AT 2:40 PM ET ON 12-02-2022

Cambodia’s ambassador to the United States has asked that a wildlife agency official who U.S. prosecutors allege is part of a monkey smuggling scheme be transferred to the embassy’s custody in Washington.

Kry Masphal, director of Cambodia's Department of Wildlife and Biodiversity, was arrested at New York’s Kennedy International Airport on Nov. 16 while on his way to a conference in Panama on the illicit trade in endangered species. He has been charged by U.S. prosecutors with facilitating the smuggling of endangered long-tailed macaques. Also accused was Kry’s boss, Forestry Administration Director General Keo Omaliss, who remains free in Cambodia.

Kry’s lawyer, Dakota Kann works at Akin Gump, a Washington, D.C.-based firm that has been a registered lobbyist for the Cambodian government on a $60,000-a-month retainer since January.

In a motion submitted to New York Eastern District Federal Court on Wednesday, Kann laid out proposed bail conditions for Kry. 

The proposal, which is supported by a signed letter from Cambodian Ambassador Keo Chhea, centers on Kry’s spending 24 hours a day within the grounds of the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, unless summoned to court. U.S. government officials would be permitted to enter the embassy to confirm Kry’s presence under the deal.

To guarantee compliance, Keo Chhea has taken the highly unusual step of offering to waive the embassy’s diplomatic immunity, the guarantee under international law that embassy staff and premises will not be subjected to searches, arrest or interference from the authorities in their host country.

“For this purpose, the embassy irrevocably waives all diplomatic and other immunities that would otherwise prevent entry of agents of the U.S. government upon the premises of the embassy for such purpose,” the ambassador wrote in his letter to the court. “The promises, assurances and commitments conveyed in this letter are irrevocable and are made to the court without reservation or limitation.”

The offer is backed, he wrote, by “the full authority” of the Cambodian government.

Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Im Rachana told RFA Dec. 2 that her department has been working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Cambodia’s embassy in Washington to secure a lawyer for Kry Masphal “to get justice."

“I would like to reiterate that monkeys were exported based on national and international laws and regulations,” she said. Cambodia is in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, she said.

‘Poor conditions of confinement’

Since his arrest, Kry has been detained at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York, where his lawyers claim he is facing “poor conditions of confinement” alongside a “language barrier and cultural differences” that they say are making his detention “more challenging than is typical.” A memo filed by U.S. Attorney Breon Peace notes that Kry received unspecified medical treatment while detained on Nov. 18.

According to Kry’s bail application, his “limited English-speaking abilities,” coupled with the lack of a Khmer-language interpreter, “make it difficult to effectively represent Mr. Kry while he is in custody.”

An individual who has previously worked with Kry told RFA that while he was not totally fluent, Kry could conduct professional conversations in English. The person is not authorized to speak about the matter publicly and asked not to be named.

Prosecutors meanwhile are asking that Kry be transferred to Florida, where he was originally indicted.

Lead prosecutor Thomas Watts-Fitzgerald did not respond to emailed questions about whether he planned to oppose Kry’s proposed transfer to the Cambodian Embassy.

Firm denials

Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, which includes the Forestry Administration, said in a statement after Kry’s arrest that the Cambodian government “will make our utmost efforts in order to seek justice for our officials, especially those on official duty representing the country according to international conventions.”

At the heart of the charges against Kry is the distinction between long-tailed macaques bred in captivity and those caught in the wild. International trade in bred macaques is legal. The export of wild-caught macaques. however, is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, whose triennial conference of parties Kry was traveling to when he was arrested.

U.S. prosecutors allege that Kry, along with his superior Keo, aided Hong Kong-based macaque breeding firm Vanny Bio Research in acquiring wild-caught monkeys and laundering them through the company’s Cambodian breeding centers into the U.S. market disguised as captive-bred specimens.

The Agriculture Ministry statement was adamant that none of the macaques exported from Cambodia were caught in the wild.

“They are not caught from the wilderness and smuggled out, but farmed in decent manners with respect to good hygiene and health standards so as to preserve their gene pool,” the ministry said.

Vanny Bio Research said in a Nov. 23 statement that it “strongly denies any wrongdoing(s) in the operation of its businesses.”

Kann, the Akin Gump attorney, wrote in her application for a bail hearing that Kry “is committed to defending himself against these charges and does not represent a flight risk.”

“Mr. Kry does not have extravagant wealth, giving him the ability to flee the country. He spends most of his salary on his monthly liabilities. He has also lived a stable life,” she added. “He’s worked for the Cambodian government for 24 years and has a wife and three children. There is nothing in his personal background that suggests he is a flight risk.”

Flight risk

That claim did not ring true for Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, who told RFA the embassy’s offer should be met with caution.

“The U.S. should recognize the defendant’s right to bail but also set it quite high enough that it acknowledges this official is a very serious potential flight risk, especially if the Cambodian Embassy gets involved,” Robertson wrote in an email. “The Cambodian government shouldn’t be rushing forward to defend an official accused of undermining protection of wildlife that it was his job to protect. 

“But it is no surprise to anyone that there’s a massive corruption problem in the Cambodian government, and this move by the embassy raises red flags about just how high up the criminal smuggling enterprise reaches in the higher echelons of the government,” Robertson said.

Kry and Keo are the only Cambodian officials that have been charged in the case so far. However, the indictment against them appears to implicate the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. It cites a $10,000 payment allegedly flagged in internal Vanny Bio Research records as a “donation for CPP Party” to guarantee monkey exports, along with messages about needing to provide Keo with funds in light of Cambodian officials needing funds to finance campaigning during the 2018 elections.

Internal correspondence allegedly also describes the need to delay the collection of monkeys until after the elections “to avoid unnecessary attention from the public and non-governmental organizations.”

Elsewhere the indictment appears to implicate other Agriculture Ministry officials. Unnamed ministry officials are repeatedly alleged to have assisted Kry in delivering wild-caught monkeys to Vanny Bio Research.

The indictment also includes two references to what appear to be former Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon, who was removed from his post just over a month prior to Kry’s arrest and appointed as minister attached to the prime minister. 

It alleges that in May 2018 Keo promised to “try to persuade his superior to allow the collection of the needed monkeys” when Vanny Bio Research was short hundreds of specimens for export. As head of the Forestry Administration, Keo’s immediate superior is the agriculture minister. The following month, Keo is alleged to have told the company that “the minister had approved and issued the collection quota and final payment should be made” to the ministry.

“I suspect there may be many in Cambodia who are implicated in this scheme who are already urging Kry Masphal to find a way to flee overseas,” Robertson of Human Rights Watch wrote in his email. “So, the U.S. prosecutors and court need to be doubly careful to make sure this person remains in the country to stand trial.”

This story was updated to include comments from Agriculture Ministry spokesperson Im Rachana.

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