PHNOM PENH - Civil society groups and anti-corruption experts have urged Cambodia's government to open an investigation into why Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana was named in the so-called Panama Papers.
The government official is the sole Cambodian to be named in the 11 million or so documents leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
Media organizations and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) last week began publishing details from the leak — whose revelations have shed light on the shadowy world of offshore finance, by which the world's wealthy can avoid paying taxes or dodge scrutiny of their financial affairs.
The ICIJ claimed on its website that Vong Vathana, who has been Cambodia's top justice official since 2004, had in 2007 bought $5,000 worth of shares in a now-defunct company called RCD International Limited, based in the British Virgin Islands.
The Justice Ministry quickly denied the veracity of the information, but observers say a full investigation is needed in order to calm public suspicions.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, told VOA Khmer on Friday that launching an investigation would show "cleanliness" from the government.
"I think if there's such news, there should be an investigation to clear the name of a government official," Kol said. "It might be a concern for the related institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Unit [ACU], which has the authority since the case is linked to corruption, and also the [Financial Intelligence Unit]. We can't say much for now. It's just that it's some news that the people want to have a clear sight of."
Similarly, San Chey, a fellow with the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability in East Asia and the Pacific, told VOA Khmer that an investigation would help restore the credibility of the government, provided that Vong Vathana was found to be "clean."
"What's necessary is that law enforcement bodies such the Anti-Corruption Unit should take measures to investigate," Chey said. "Even though there's no one filing a complaint, the matter could affect the dignity and the reputation of Cambodia on the international stage because there's the name of a senior official, namely the justice minister. It's not just any ministry, it's the Justice Ministry — the one that should find justice for the people. It's unfortunate for it to fall into such a scandal."
ACU President Om Yentieng told reporters at a special news conference Thursday that his staff was "working on" the issue, but insisted that did not mean that they would formally investigate.
"There is more meaning to the word ‘investigate,'" he said. "There is a piece of information and we have to do research upon its credibility. And we'll see who to approach next. It is a step-by-step process."
VOA Khmer could not reach Vong Vathana or Justice Ministry officials for comment.
But on Monday last week, the day after the story of the Panama Papers first broke, Justice Ministry spokesman Sorn Sophoan said in a news release that the ICIJ's claim about Vong Vathana was "false news that made the public confused and affected the dignity of the minister."
Chey said the ministry's response was slow and unclear, compared with other governments. Some countries have launched broad investigations into whether the Panama Papers expose criminality in their jurisdictions.
"In terms of reaction, we all need to understand that the reaction from the Cambodian government was rather late," he said.
"Besides Ang Vong Vathana and his spokesman, there's only one press statement rejecting the Panama Papers. However, in Thailand, they take measures immediately. The officials there are investigating the issue because it's related to public figures in the country."
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.