Courts in Koh Kong and Ratanakkiri to investigate illegal logging claims.
KOH Kong provincial court has summoned two forestry officials – a former maritime inspector and a current Forestry Department staff member in Preah Sihanouk province – on suspicion of involvement in an illegal logging ring, court officials said Monday.
The summonses come amid mounting frustration that a crackdown on illegal logging announced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in January has not led to arrests and prosecutions, despite a spate of raids in Koh Kong and a handful of other provinces.
Meanwhile, officials at the provincial Forestry Department in Ratanakkiri who have requested permission to auction off wood seized during recent raids there are also set to be called in for questioning, and officials at the provincial court said Monday that they wanted to know why complaints had not been filed in connection with roughly 45 raids carried out in that province this year.
Bun Thy, an investigating judge at Koh Kong provincial court, said Monday that the two forestry officials had been summoned along with two officials from a conservation NGO.
“I have issued summons letters to order [the four officials] to appear in court under suspicion of being behind illegal logging and conspiring with businessmen,” he said.
He declined to elaborate on the case, saying that investigations “were ongoing”.
But Huon Mony, the director of the court, said the investigation centred on one main operation with several offshoots, and that it could potentially implicate “several suspected officials and several businessmen”.
“As far as I know, there is an ongoing investigation into a massive forestry crime committed in April, which was divided into several smaller cases which involved many people,” he said.
A raid on the operation, he added, had led to the seizure of “hundreds of cubic metres of luxury wood” and seven trucks.
Meas Sitha, deputy director of the provincial Forestry Department, said the four officials had been summoned to appear in court on June 21.
Cheng Kimsun, the director of the Forestry Administration, declined to comment on Monday, saying he was in a meeting.
In Ratanakkiri, officials at the provincial Forestry Department have sought permission to auction off wood seized during this year’s raids, saying they want the proceeds to be turned over to the government, provincial court director Lu Susambath said.
He said this request would not be granted until the court received an explanation as to why no arrests or prosecutions had stemmed from any of the raids.
“There were about 45 forest crimes that provincial forestry officials have cracked down on over several months, confiscating hundreds of cubic metres of wood,” he said. “But we have never seen any wood sellers arrested.”
He declined to say how many forestry officials would be summoned as part of the investigation, though he noted that the summonses would be issued before the end of the month.
Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said the lack of prosecutions had frustrated local observers.
“We feel hopeless that local authorities and court officials that have cracked down on multiple forestry offences have failed to apprehend powerful people behind the illegal logging trade,” he said. “We welcomed the crackdown, but if no one is prosecuted then the premier’s speech would be meaningless.”
Toby Eastoe, an ecological adviser for the Cardamom Mountains Wildlife Sanctuary Project at Flora and Fauna International, seconded the call for prosecutions.
“It’d be nice for them to be prosecuted. Every time we send someone to be prosecuted it’s very hard to get through the courts,” he said. “Obviously the higher up the officials are, the harder it is.”
Though the crackdown has “taken out a few key figures”, it has not led to greater protection for forests, he said.
But Mark Gately, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said the crackdown seemed to have curtailed illegal logging in Mondulkiri. “From what I’ve heard from our project teams, there seems to be far less wood being moved at ground level,” he said.
Sok Sam Oeun, director of legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project, said it was incumbent on forestry officials – and not the courts – to pursue complaints against individuals.
Article 96 of the 2002 Forestry Law states that anyone caught engaging in illegal logging shall be subject to a fine that is two to three times the market value of the confiscated evidence.