Five more suspects have been arrested and are being interrogated by authorities in relation to the murder of three forest patrollers last Tuesday in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, authorities confirmed yesterday.
“We arrested six people and two of the six suspects are the masterminds,” provincial Governor Svay Sam Eng said.
Those two are Keut Veha, head of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Regiment 103 – who turned himself in on Wednesday night – and Phal Penh, the border police chief of the O’Rolear border post. He is also an official in Border Police Unit 621.
Penh was arrested on Friday morning in Tbong Khmum’s Memot district while waiting for his wife to send him money, according to provincial Deputy Police Chief So Sovan.
The next day, authorities arrested soldiers Keut Veta – who is Veha’s brother – and Lay Savy; O’Rolear border police officer Ton Theara; and Chheang Vannith, who is the brother-in-law of Phal Penh. All four are suspected accomplices in the slaying of Military Police officer Sok Vothana, Environment Ministry ranger Theun Soknay, and Wildlife Conservation Society staffer Thol Khna in O’Raing district.
The three were shot and killed while on a routine forestry patrol.
Governor Sam Eng said the case showed that forestry crimes involving officials who collude with loggers are still “happening on a small scale”, and added that “firm measures” would be taken in response.
A probe launched in February last year found that more than a dozen police, Military Police and army officials allegedly colluded with Vietnamese timber smugglers to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars in bribes in the same district.
In a video posted by government mouthpiece Fresh News on Friday, Penh claims to officials that the patrollers attempted to extort money from his men.
He said the patrollers had taken pictures of “Vietnamese” loggers as they slept with chainsaws beside them, which they confiscated. Hearing about the incident, officer Theara then phoned the patrollers, at which point the three allegedly demanded payment. “The three guys said they need 5 million riel [about $1,250], and Ton Theara said if you want it please come out and have a talk. So we hung up the phone and they said they will come to meet us, and I told them do not report about this case, [as] it was just a small case,” he said.
In the video, Penh said he did not receive payment, as “our negotiations were incompatible”. He also maintained that he had warned the patrollers to “report” to his unit where and when they would travel in the area, adding that he warned them they would “fall into a dangerous time” if not. In the video, Penh does not describe the events leading up to the actual shooting.
Commenting on Penh’s allegations of extortion on the part of the slain patrollers, Governor Sam Eng said he was inclined to believe that Penh’s version of the events was true. “If there was not this problem [of collusion], this case might not have happened,” he said, while also noting the other side’s story could not be heard.
Deputy Provincial Police Chief So Sovan also seemingly bought the narrative that the victims had been involved in extortion before being gunned down and abandoned in the forest.
“This is the conflict of both sides,” he said, adding that “both sides had traded words back and forth and that led to the shootout”. He declined to comment further.
Environment Ministry Spokesman Sao Sopheap yesterday declined to comment on the allegations of wrongdoing against the slain patrollers. “I think we all should not make more hurt for the families who lost their loved ones and let . . . the justice system work on the case and find justice for those who lost their lives,” he said.
WCS Country Director Ken Sereyrotha yesterday declined to comment on the allegations. “I leave it to the government authorities to respond because they conduct the investigation,” he said.
In a statement posted by the conservation organisation on Friday, Sereyrotha extended “heartfelt condolences to the families and relatives of our three conservation heroes”.
“Every day, rangers and law enforcement staff risk their lives to protect wildlife and forests. We should not allow criminals to destroy the forests of Cambodia and to threaten and murder those working tirelessly to protect this country’s natural heritage,” he said.
Court spokesman Morm Vanda said interrogations would continue today.