The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the Mondulkiri provincial authority to release on bail eight Vietnamese nationals who have been imprisoned for more than six months over an illegal timber trade.
At an hour-long trial in absentia, the Supreme Court ordered the eight Vietnamese to post bail of 30 million riel ($7,500). If convicted, each will receive a five-year prison sentence and a fine of 10 million riel ($2,500) under Article 98 of the Forestry Law.
The eight have been put in pretrial detention since January 13, in excess of the legal maximum of six months for a misdemeanour case, said Presiding Judge Soeng Panhavuth.
“Therefore, the Supreme Court decides to overturn the Appeal Court’s verdict and release the eight men on bail,” he said.
The court also withheld their passports and ordered the accused to present themselves at the local police station once a month.
Defence lawyer Kao Sopheaktra said his clients entered the Kingdom legally and were employed by Duong Sruoch Group, a company that had obtained a land concession for agricultural development in the province.
“My clients hadn’t committed any crimes so the Supreme Court should free them because they have already promised to deposit 30 million riel as well as their passports,” he said during the trial.
The provincial authority said the eight Vietnamese men were arrested on January 10 at the Sre Pok Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondulkiri province’s Pech Chreada district.
They had allegedly logged thousands of trees and used vehicles under Duong Sruoch Group’s logo to transport the wood.
During a raid, the authorities discovered seven huge piles of trimmed timber amounting to some 1,000 cubic metres, in the forest.
The provincial investigating judge charged them with illegal forestry trading, but the accused appealed to the higher court, which upheld the verdict.
Kreung Tola, a member of the provincial ethnic community Network, called the release an injustice.
“If the court reduces punishment or releases them, it will encourage the perpetrators to repeat the offences. If they are found guilty, they should be punished in accordance with the laws. That would motivate forest protectors to continue their work,” he said.
Forest activists devote their own time and money, and also face death threats when carrying out their work, he added.