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Charges laid in forest patroller murders

Suspects Keut Veha, Keut Veta, Chheang Vannith, Thon Theara and Lay Savy, who are suspected in the killing of three forest patrollers, at the Mondulkiri Military Police Station. Photo supplied
Suspects Keut Veha, Keut Veta, Chheang Vannith, Thon Theara and Lay Savy, who are suspected in the killing of three forest patrollers, at the Mondulkiri Military Police Station. Photo supplied

Charges laid in forest patroller murders

Charges were brought yesterday against six suspects allegedly involved in the killings of three forest patrollers in Mondulkiri’s O’Raing district last week, including charges of premeditated murder for a border police chief and a soldier.

Provincial court spokesman Meas Bros said that Phal Penh, the chief of the O’Rolear border post and a part of border police Unit 621, and Keut Veha, the head of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Regiment 103, were charged under Article 200 of the Criminal Code and Article 20 of the Arms Control Law.

Article 200 covers premeditated murder and murder by ambush, and carries a life sentence. Article 20 covers unauthorised or illegal use of weaponry and carries a sentence of six months to two years imprisonment and a fine 500,000 to 2 million riel (about $125 to $500). According to Bros, Penh and Veha fired shots from two rifles, though an evidence report on February 4 from Deputy Military Police Commander Hong Vinon listed only one automatic rifle.

Wildlife Conservation Society staffer Thol Khna, 24, Ministry of Environment ranger Theun Soknay, 37, and Military Police officer Sok Vothana, 34, were gunned down on January 30 after having confiscated equipment, including chainsaws, from a logging camp, officials and WCS have said. Accounts provided by authorities indicate the three were shot after border police and soldiers confronted them after learning of the confiscation of the chainsaws.

Veha turned himself in to authorities on Wednesday night, and authorities arrested four other suspects on Thursday before Penh’s arrest on Friday.

Suspects Keut Veta, Veha’s brother and the commander of Regiment 103’s Platoon 3, and Chheang Vannith, Penh’s brother-in-law, were charged with “facilitating in the elimination of evidence”, as well as being accomplices to murder.

Read more: Murder of patrollers puts safety of those protecting Cambodia’s forests into spotlight

Under the Criminal Code, an accomplice “shall incur the same penalties as the perpetrator”. Destruction or concealment of evidence is punishable by one to three years imprisonment and a fine of about $500 to $1,500.

Meanwhile, Ton Theara, a border police officer, and Lay Savy, deputy commander of Platoon 3, were charged with “intervening and offering permission directly or indirectly in helping the timber traders based on Article 100 of the Forestry Law”, the spokesman said. The article carries a sentence of one to five years in prison and a fine of about $2,500 to $25,000.

All six suspects are now in pre-trial detention, Bros said.

Yeut Kan, the brother of slain ranger Soknay, said yesterday he was happy to hear of the charges, and hoped for life sentences for the convicted suspects. Kan also rebuffed Penh’s account given during recorded questioning this weekend – seemingly believed and repeated by authorities on Sunday – that the three slain patrollers had demanded bribes or otherwise shared blame in the violent confrontation.

“The suspects said that to hide the truth, and shot them to shut them up,” he said, adding that the version of events was an “excuse” concocted to appeal for leniency.

Goldman Prize-winning environmentalist Ouch Leng said in an email yesterday that forest protectors are murdered to be “shut up” as witnesses, with the timber trade a “nonstop” business by “mafia and high ranking government officials”.

“They reported and saw the timber business operating by armed forces [ordered] from [a] high level of government so that is why they got killed,” he said.

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