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Soldiers, including one ex-con, arrested over land-clearing allegation

Soldiers, including one ex-con, arrested over land-clearing allegation

Three soldiers, one of whom was previously implicated in the murder of an environmental official, were arrested last week in Preah Sihanouk province for allegedly clearing an area of protected forest land in Ream National Park, officials said yesterday.

Provincial deputy prosecutor Ros Saram said that two of the soldiers were arrested on Thursday alongside the operator of an excavator they were using to clear the land.

The following day, a third soldier, Thorn Virak, was arrested.

“The driver and three soldiers were charged with clearing the forest land in Ream National Park without permission and they were detained in the [provincial] prison” to await trial, Saram said.

The quartet was charged under Article 56 and 62 of the Protected Areas Law, he added.

When asked about details of the four detainees, Saram said that the vehicle operator was a “normal villager”, while the two arrested alongside him were serving in the military in Preah Sihanouk.

Virak, he said, had military fatigues and had confessed to being a soldier under questioning.

If the claims of being a soldier turned out to be false, he would face additional charges, Sarom added.

Virak previously spent time in prison after he was convicted in July 2009 of supplying the gun used to murder Nov Kim, an environmental official stationed in the park, earlier that year.

The killing took place after Kim detained Virak and four other men on suspicion of illegal logging. Virak was sentenced to one year in prison and fined 500,000 riel (about $123).

Saram said police were looking into the details of Virak’s previous conviction to include in the upcoming trial.

Buon Sarith, Preah Sihanouk provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, said that despite Ream National Park being declared a protected area in 1993 by Royal Decree, he has seen loggers there in recent years.

“The logging and clearing [of the park] has been happening for four or five years, conducted by rich and powerful people,” he said.

“We saw some interception, but only the poor people hired to log were arrested,” he added.

Nouv Karun, director of Ream National Park, declined to comment yesterday on last week’s arrests.

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