The Anti-Corruption Unit has arrested a military police officer accused of involvement in an illegal luxury timber racket in Pursat province’s Krakor district - an area where government investigators conceded that complicity by the powerful was rife.
On Saturday, the anti-graft agency arrested military police officer Poung Puthearith, who is accused of threatening Forestry Administration officials who tried to stop him from transporting four carloads of illegally felled rosewood in June.
“Poung Puthearith [took money] from those transporting illegal wood in cars in return for protecting them from being arrested when authorities went to crack down,” the ACU said in a statement released Saturday.
“So far in Pursat province, it is very difficult to crack down on logging, because there are many people that use their power to stop [investigators] and create obstacles for the police,” the statement read.
Puthearith could not be reached yesterday, and it is not known if he has a lawyer yet. The ACU said he had confessed to the crimes and that seven witnesses had seen him threaten joint forces led by the Forestry Administration when they attempted to stop four Lexus four-wheel drive vehicles packed with rosewood at a checkpoint on National Road 5 at 10:15 pm on June 11.
He then allegedly sent the convoy straight past deputy Krakor district Forestry Administration chief Pol Chantha, who had been ordered to stop Puthearith after the ACU received a tip-off about his activities.
An Sokhon, a military police chief in Pursat province, said he deeply regretted Puthearith’s actions, before declining to comment further as the matter was under the jurisdiction of the ACU.
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said Puthearith was in custody and would likely be charged today.
Officials at the Forestry Administration either could not be reached or declined to comment.
When asked questions about the specific value and amount of timber Puthearith was allegedly involved in transporting, ACU head Om Yentieng declined to comment at a press conference on Saturday.
Rosewood can fetch about $10,000 per cubic metre in Cambodia and is sold for vastly more money in destination countries such as China.
The illegal trade of luxury timber such as rosewood is a massive business in Cambodia, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, along with the far more environmentally devastating sale of cheaper varieties of timber, which are clear-felled rather than selectively logged.
Krakor district is a remote district bordering the protected flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap lake, just above the foothills leading into the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary at the base of the Cardamom mountain range.
Of more than a half-dozen conservationists contacted by the Post yesterday, none knew any detailed information about the area.
ACU on the front foot?
The arrest of Poung Puthearith was announced Saturday at an ACU press conference. That came just a day after ACU head Om Yentieng revealed a taxation official in Preah Vihear province and a deputy prosecutor had been removed from their posts while investigations continued into alleged corruption.
Mid-year, the ACU signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the firm Samreth Law Group, which is working with staff at the watchdog to strengthen their human resources and legal knowledge.
Matthew Rendall, a partner at the law firm Sciaroni & Associates, said the fact that the ACU had actually made an arrest in the highly sensitive industry of illegal logging was very encouraging.
“The fact that they are making an inroad into that industry is a great sign,” he said, adding that the ACU’s admission that they were constrained by powerful individuals was a pretty reasonable observation.
“No doubt they are hamstrung to a large degree because of how entrenched corruption in this country is,” he said.
But Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said what might seem like a positive development at face value had deeper underlying motivations.
“I think that’s a combination of a few things. One is that I think that they are taking it [corruption] a bit more seriously,” he said.
“You’re starting to see people are trying - in a more chaotic way, in a more anarchic way - to use whatever power they have, and usually that power comes from guns,” Virak said, adding corruption had reached a level where it was “out of control”.
But the ACU remained powerless to crack down on corrupt officials at the very top of the CPP, Virak said, and existed primarily to serve as a tool for Hun Sen to control recalcitrant members of his government who fell out of favour or undermined him.
“Hun Sen’s made statements many, many times that he was frustrated by the lack of control over the military and over some of the illegal logging activities,” he said.