Provincial authorities in Tboung Khmum province on Saturday said they discovered 17 tonnes of illegal rosewood hidden on a commune chief’s family’s land, only to have a mob of armed local residents break into the property that night and steal potential evidence.
Following a tip, authorities raided the property belonging to the daughter of Hem Yieb, chief of Trapaing Phlong commune. Yieb and his daughter intercepted the law enforcement officers, arguing with them for an hour. Eventually, 4,696 logs were found in a storage shed.
“The commune chief is near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, so it is easy to run the business because he . . . has good relations with other officers,” said Neang Sovath, provincial coordinator with rights group Adhoc.
Yieb said the property belongs to his daughter and that her “friend”, who wants to open a sawmill business, had left the timber there, according to the prosecutor. Yieb’s family was not available for comment yesterday.
Neither Yieb nor his daughter were arrested, but court officials say they plan to issue a warrant. Provincial court prosecutor Hieng Sopheak said that even if the timber doesn’t belong to the commune chief, he still interfered in an investigation and helped provide a place to store it.
Chan Dara, Sopheak’s assistant, said the quarrelsome commune chief had blasted him for being “uncooperative”.
“If we cooperated with you, you would not tell us where the rosewood is,” Dara recalled replying.
Yieb, a member of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party, also warned court officials that if they bring this case against him, word will get out and cost the CPP votes in the area.
“He said that you, the prosecutor, will damage [the CPP’s reputation] or make it lose votes,” said Dara. “He linked it to party affairs.”
The rosewood was seized and impounded at the provincial Forestry Administration office. Authorities locked the property where they found it, but later on Saturday, at about 9pm, some 100 locals broke into the property and stole two heavy trucks, a crane truck and a tractor.
“We think he incited villagers to break in,” said Dara. “They were armed with cleavers and axes and took the trucks and tractor at night. They robbed the evidence; it is his territory. If he did not urge the people, they would not do it.”
Separately, Kratie provincial forestry officials arrested a heavy truck with more than 10 cubic metres of timber on Thursday afternoon, but the driver managed to escape, according to deputy provincial prosecutor Hak Horn.
“The timber was hidden under cassava sacks, but the officers knew and checked it,” he said.