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I'm Innocent, Says Taiwanese Waste Importer

by Phelim Kyne and Chiu Yu-Tzu, Taipei Times
Chang Ku-feng says the Cambodian government's handling of the affair has been hypocritical from the start. Photo: Jerome Favre
TAIPEI, Taiwan, 4 December 1999 -- One of two Taiwanese men convicted in absentia on June 17, 1999 for "conspiring to damage the environment" in connection with the Sihanoukville toxic waste dumping dismissed his conviction during an interview with the Taipei Times as "ridiculous."

Chang Ku-feng and a co-worker, Kao Chia Song, both employees of Jade Fortune International based on Taipei's historic Ti Hua Street, were sentenced along with their Cambodian interpreter, Phang Phoeung, to five years imprisonment and fines of US$500,000. Phoeung is still at large.

"It won't be a problem ... I have an American passport," Chang said when asked about the possibility of some day being extradited to Cambodia. "The person I really feel sorry for is our interpreter ... it's very unfair."

Chang and Kao traveled to Cambodia last December to finalize the details of the dumping of the FPC waste with Sam Moeun, owner of the Cambodian Muth Vuthy Import Co in Phnom Penh. Moeun was sentenced to seven months imprisonment on the same charge.

Chang insisted that he and Kao were innocent of any wrongdoing in the Sihanoukville dumping.

"I'm not guilty of what the Cambodian government said I did," Chang said. "The ruling of the [Cambodian] court was totally unfair."

According to Chang, the Cambodian prosecutor's allegations that he and Kao had duped Cambodian customs officials into accepting the toxic waste were false.

"Look at the agreement we made with Formosa Plastics to ship the waste [to Cambodia]," Chang said, pointing to a section of a company document that describes the waste as "non toxic." It was [Formosa's] responsibility to tell us the precise nature of what the waste really was ... they're the ones at fault."

When contacted yesterday, Formosa Plastics spokesman, Lin Sheng-kuan), refused, however, to confirm that the company did describe the waste on documents as "non toxic."

"It's been too long to remember all the details," Lin said.

Chang also said he thought the dismissal of charges against three Cambodian customs officials in the Phnom Penh trial, which resulted in his and Kao's conviction, was suspicious.

"It's strange that two Taiwanese got far heavier sentences than those [Cambodians]," Chang said. Chang has not been the only one skeptical about the results of his June 17 trial.

In Cambodia, rumors of multi-million dollar bribes to facilitate the waste's importation have abounded, bolstered by Prime Minister Hun Sen's statement that "if there had not been high-level involvement, [the shipment] could not have been managed."

A year later, Kek Galabru, director of the Cambodian human rights group LICADHO, said dissatisfaction is rife regarding the apparent impunity enjoyed by the port and customs officials at Sihanoukville who approved the waste's unloading.

"People in Sihanoukville are so unhappy about this ... they know this was a real crime but no one has come to investigate who perpetrated that crime," Galabru said.

"People still tell our staff in Sihanoukville that there can't be justice if [the waste dumping] goes unpunished," he said.

Chang points to the willingness of the Cambodian government to accept toxic waste from his company on earlier occasions as proof of hypocrisy in his conviction.

"Just two years ago [the Cambodian government] invited our company to send much larger quantities of toxic waste to Cambodia," Chang said. "The chemicals approved ... are banned for importation all over the world, but the Cambodian government approved them."

As proof, Chang produces a copy of a 1997 letter with approval stamps from the Cambodian Ministries of Finance and Customs notifying Jade Fortune of approval to import 40,000 tonnes of waste, including 11,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and 6,000 tons of asbestos.

Chang is ambiguous regarding whether the deal ever went through, while Cambodian Environment Minister Mok Mareth described the possibility of such a shipment reaching Cambodia unnoticed as "impossible."

Currently the waste is stored in containers in Kaohsiung harbor. Formosa's Lin said that the company was making efforts to look for a waste handler with advanced technology in developed countries such as Germany to treat the waste.

Lin said that the deadline for storing the waste set by the Kaohisung Harbor Bureau was the end of next April.

However, Lin told the Taipei Times that customs authorities have agreed to exempt the company from a regulation saying the company should pay monitoring fees if its cargo is delayed from being removed from the port for more than 60 days. Had the regulation been applied, FPG would have had to pay NT$480,000 a day for storing 357 cargo containers since early June.

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