THREE suspects arrested on suspicion that they set fire to two bridges in Battambang’s Samlot district were scheduled to appear in court for questioning Thursday evening, but a fourth was released after officials concluded that he had not participated in any crime, said provincial Military Police Deputy Chief Im Dara.
The bridges were burned on Monday night, just three hours after Tith Savoeun, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldier who officials say is known locally as the “Wood Emperor” because of his involvement in illegal logging, was arrested transporting illegal wood.
Officials have alleged that the bridge-burnings were part of an effort by members of Tith Savoeun’s logging ring to throw the authorities off their trail.
Im Dara said the man who was released Thursday, 25-year-old Peng Phearun, was merely “a witness” and could not be charged.
“Peng Phearun saw a group setting fire to the bridges, including the other three suspects: Ven Sopheap, Taing Srey Pov and Eav Ol,” he said.
“The three will be sent to provincial court Thursday evening, and we hope they will be charged with destroying public property.”
[Tith Savoeun’s]business has become very systematic and anarchic.
Provincial court prosecutor Sar Yos Thavrak said the court would not be in a position to charge the three suspects Thursday because an investigation into the case was not yet complete.
“I cannot say what the charges will be or how long they could be in jail,” he said. “We still need to finish the investigation.”
He declined to comment on whether more arrest warrants would be issued in connection with the case.
Im Dara said military police officials were looking to arrest at least two more suspects, both of whom he said were suspected of having fled to Pailin province.
“I sent the arrest warrants to the provincial court, but I haven’t received any response from the court yet,” he said.
Hem Sovath, deputy chief of the Thailand-Cambodia Relations Office, had previously estimated that as many as 15 people could have been involved in the bridge-burnings.
On Thursday, he reiterated his disappointment that the Wood Emperor had been released by provincial Environment Department officials after paying a fine of US$1,500.
Sar Yos Thavrak has blamed the department for failing to file a report on Tith Savoeun, leaving him powerless to issue an arrest warrant.
“The Wood Emperor has been smuggling timber illegally for four or five years already, and his business has become very systematic and anarchic,” Hem Sovath said.
“No one has dared to take any action against him. But I had no choice. I was worried that my team would be accused of involvement in this illegal activity. So that’s why I decided to cooperate with the Environment Department and arrest him.”
Though it was unclear Thursday whether an arrest warrant would ever be issued for the rosewood regent, Hem Sovath said he hoped the arrest would inspire other officials to take similar action. “I hope that officials who know of illegal loggers in other provinces will try to stop their activities and crack down on them,” he said.