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Villagers seek man’s release in timber case

SIEM REAP PROVINCE
ABOUT 40 protesters gathered in front of Siem Reap provincial court on Thursday to demand the release of a man who was arrested in January for allegedly cutting down trees in a protected forest area, saying that they purchased the land from a government official in 2007.

Chhoeut Chhong, 45, was arrested along with his two sons after officials accused them of illegally felling trees in Anlong Veng district, Oddar Meanchey province, Siem Reap provincial court judge Hok Pov said Thursday. The two sons were released later that month.

The protesters said Thursday that Chhoet Chhong and about 300 other villagers purchased 30-by-200-metre plots of land in Anlong Veng district for US$1,000 in 2007 from an “agent” acting on behalf of an Environment Ministry official.

The “agent”, Ry Heng, and the official, Keng Socheat, have been summoned to appear in court but have yet to do so, said Sous Narin, an investigator for the rights group Adhoc.

Roeun Rem, a 55-year-old man who participated in Thursday’s protest, said both Ry Heng and Keng Socheat should be made to answer to the villagers’ allegations.

“It is an injustice to detain [Chhoeut Chhong] while that environmental official and his agent live freely,” he said.

“I would like to ask Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene in this case to help release an innocent man and to punish that official and his agent.”

Moeun Heak, Chhoeut Chhong’s wife, said she did not care what happened to the two men so long as her husband was released.

Ry Heng and Keng Socheat could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Judge Hok Pov said he had told the protesters on Thursday that he would not release Chhoeut Chhong while his case was pending.

“I made the decision to keep him in prison because twice he has committed the crime of cutting down trees in the forest,” the judge said. “If he is allowed to leave, he will continue to do it again.”

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