The government has filed four complaints of timber hoarding against two companies in Kratie province, a court official confirmed on Tuesday—the first legal action to come out of an ad hoc task force Prime Minister Hun Sen established last month to go after illicit wood stocks in eastern Cambodia.
On Monday, National Police spokesman Eng Hy said the task force has started sending cases to court in Mondolkiri, Kratie and Tbong Khmum provinces, having finished taking inventory some of the wood it had found in sawmills and warehouses, and on rubber plantations.
On Tuesday, Kratie Provincial Court deputy prosecutor Hak Hoan said he had received four complaints over past few days, two each filed against the China Dynamic and TNV rubber plantations for having unclaimed and undocumented timber on their property.
“I received four cases from the illegal logging task force, and I have issued summonses for representatives of the two companies to come to court on March 16 for questioning because they are involved with the wood that was found,” he said.
“The task force found many pieces of wood on the land of the two companies,” he added. “We will be able to know clearly who really owns the wood after questioning the companies.”
Mr. Hoan said, however, that he could not recall how much unclaimed and undocumented wood authorities had found on their properties. The companies could not be reached for comment.
Court prosecutors in Mondolkiri and Tbong Khmum said on Tuesday they were still waiting to receive complaints from the task force.
But Chea Sovantheth, a deputy prosecutor in Mondolkiri, said he was expecting cases to be brought against several companies, including Binh Phuoc 1.
Local villagers have accused the Vietnamese-owned rubber company of illegally logging the protected forest beyond the boundaries of its plantation for the past several years. The company denies the claims. Last month, several large piles of wood on the company’s property went up in flames; authorities said at the time that they suspected arson, but have yet to name suspects.
“We have finished investigating Binh Phuoc 1 and found 4,384 cubic meters of Sokrom, Koki and Phchoek wood,” Mr. Sovantheth said, naming three first-grade species. “The Forestry Administration has accused Binh Phuoc 1 of illegally stocking wood on the company’s land.
“Binh Phuoc 1 must be responsible for the wood that was found and for the wood set on fire,” he added. “First, we have to accuse the company, even though it denies it.”
Binh Phuoc 1 manager Cheng Sovichet has said in the past that the plantation had hired the Duong Srouch company for the job, which then subcontracted the work to businessman Soeng Sam Ol.
Mr. Sam Ol was one of two men, along with Lim Bunna, whom the government singled out as the task force’s prime targets when it was formed. Mr. Bunna has been unreachable, while Mr. Sam Ol has denied logging illegally, accusing local authorities of sullying his name in a bid for bribes.
Mr. Sovantheth said he was also expecting cases to be filed against at least three more plantations: Khmer Angkor Agriculture, Dai Nam and Dai Thanh.
“We are going to build a case to charge these companies after experts from the Forestry Administration finish measuring the wood—soon,” he said.
Dai Thanh is owned by Mr. Sam Ol. The Environment Ministry canceled the other two plantations last year for unspecified contract violations but has since given Mr. Pheap permission to collect any wood left over by Dai Nam and Mr. Bunna permission to do the same at the Khmer Angkor Agriculture site.
At a meeting of the task force last month, Mondolkiri governor Eng Bunheang said Mr. Pheap and Mr. Bunna were each given new economic land concessions at the sites, a move that would violate a moratorium on new concessions order by the prime minister in 2012. The Environment Ministry has denied that new concessions were issued but refused to provide copies of the deals it made with the pair.
Mr. Hoan, in Kratie, said companies on whose land the timber was found would be fined and the wood confiscated as state property.
The Forestry Law states all timber seized as state property must be sold at public auction. In 2014, however, the Council of Ministers ordered authorities offer up all seized wood for purchase by Mr. Pheap, who has used the arrangement to acquire vast quantities of high-value lumber at bargain prices.
Separate undercover investigations by rights groups in recent years have identified Mr. Pheap as the biggest illegal timber trader in Cambodia. His company denies the claim.