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Probe finds high-ranking officials involved in smuggling timber to Vietnam

Timber trucks driven by Vietnamese nationals that were seized in Mondulkiri province last month. The case prompted an investigation into possible collusion between authorities and illegal loggers. Photo supplied
Timber trucks driven by Vietnamese nationals that were seized in Mondulkiri province last month. The case prompted an investigation into possible collusion between authorities and illegal loggers. Photo supplied

Probe finds high-ranking officials involved in smuggling timber to Vietnam

An official investigation has 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, according to a letter from National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun.

Signed by Neth Savoeun on March 9 and addressed to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, and disseminated by pro-government media outlet Fresh News yesterday, the document details the investigation that followed the interception by authorities in February of a timber haul in Mondulkiri’s O’Raing district in which seven Vietnamese nationals were arrested.

What’s more, the document constitutes a rare admission by authorities of high-ranking officials’ apparent involvement in the cross-border timber trade, despite myriad accusations from observers and activists.

According to the letter, three officials – Tea Khaimeng, a Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officer responsible for border checkpoint ‘Kor 3’ in Keo Seima district; Em Songhour, an RCAF officer stationed at O’huch checkpoint; and Chum Rattanak, the National Police’s border police chief at O’huch – allegedly received a total of $170,000 from a Vietnamese trader named Uk Nhor.

The officials allegedly shared the bounty with several others, including $10,000 to Provincial Military Police Commander Sak Sarang, $6,000 to a Forestry Administration official named only as “Nak”, and $22,500 to the O’huch border police chief Leang Phearoth.

The letter pins Rattanak, Phearoth, Khaimeng, Songhour and the Vietnamese trader as the “masterminds of the collusion to log, collect and haul the [timber] to Vietnam”.

In all, 11 National Police officials are implicated by the letter, which requests the interior minister to authorise court charges against Rattanak and Phearoth. For the nine others, administrative disciplinary actions, such as reassignment or “education”, is recommended.

Interior Ministry and National Police spokesmen contacted yesterday were unavailable or declined to comment. Jurisdiction for officials involved who are not in the National Police force falls outside of the Savoeun’s purview.

Military police spokesman Eng Hy and RCAF Border Regiment 103 Commander Yin Chathy, the superior of some of those implicated, said investigations are ongoing.

According to Hy, “officials from different institutions are looking into it”. Vong Sokserey, the provincial Forestry Administration director, claimed ignorance of the allegations and declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Sak Sarang, the Mondulkiri provincial military police commander accused of taking $10,000 in bribes, denied the allegation or having any connection to any of the other officials named.

“I have never met those people. In short, I do not know them. I have never even seen their faces,” he said, before hanging up on a reporter. Among those implicated are Sarang’s older brother and Keo Seima District Military Police Commander Sak Sarun.

Preap Kol, the director of Transparency International Cambodia, noted that the Anti-Corruption Unit should be involved in further investigations, adding that the corruption apparent in the letter suggests the “indicated briberies are a tip of the iceberg if compared to the records of timber trade by the Vietnamese authorities”.

According to a report on Vietnamese customs data published last year, the combined value of timber legally imported by Vietnam from Cambodia rose from $45.7 million in 2013 to $379 million in 2015.

This latest crackdown on allegedly corrupt officials falls under a broader effort by the anti-logging commission created last year on the orders of prime minister Hun Sen.

The task force claimed in April to have put an end to logging in the eastern provinces, though when Post reporters investigated in June, they found rampant logging, collusion by authorities and witnessed bribery at border checkpoints.

Sok Rotha, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the group will insist that the officials named see their day in court.

“If there is no action against the perpetrators, it will create more impunity.”

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