A court investigation into illegal timber trafficking has targeted 11 provincial officials—including Mondolkiri’s heads of the military and military police, and potentially a court prosecutor—prompting the case’s transfer to Phnom Penh at the request of the justice minister, officials said on Tuesday.
The investigation was sparked by information provided by six Vietnamese detainees, who were arrested in February while allegedly transporting illegally logged wood to Vietnam, according to deputy provincial governor Choeung Sochantha.
Mr. Sochantha said on Tuesday that a list of 11 officials being investigated included outgoing provincial police chief Touch Yun, provincial military police commander Sak Sarang and provincial military commander Chhit Meng Sreng.
It also includes Leang Phearoth, who runs the O’houch border checkpoint, as well as his deputy, Chum Rottana, Mr. Sochantha said.
The deputy governor added that a provincial court prosecutor was also under investigation, but declined to name the prosecutor.
Brigadier generals Yun and Meng Sreng initially launched an investigation into officials’ involvement in the timber trade last month, following reports on Fresh News of their subordinates participating in the illicit smuggling, but they have now been ensnared in the probe themselves, according to the deputy governor. Brig. Gen. Yun is set to be transferred this week to the National Police’s technical border police department.
Brig. Gen. Yun, Brig. Gen. Meng Sreng and Brig. Gen. Sarang declined to comment on Tuesday.
They were previously questioned in March by the national task force to stop timber trafficking, headed by National Military Police chief Sao Sokha.
Mondolkiri Provincial Court spokesman Meas Pros said on Tuesday that the court’s chief prosecutor, Long Hok Meng, had also been summoned for questioning by General Sokha, but he was unsure if it was related to the recent case.
“Mr. Hok Meng was called for questioning one time in Phnom Penh by His Excellency Sao Sokha, but I do not know any detailed information about what he was questioned about,” the spokesman said.
Mr. Hok Meng declined to comment and referred questions back to Mr. Pros.
Mr. Pros also said on Tuesday that the case was likely transferred because the national government did not think the provincial court could handle the investigation.
“I think the transfer of the case to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was because they do not trust our provincial court authority, because the people involved are provincial officials,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen banned all timber exports to Vietnam in January last year and established General Sokha’s task force to stop the illicit trade. That ban has proved impotent, according to a series of reports released by NGOs since then showing millions of dollars worth of timber still flowing across the border every month.
Pen Bonnar, senior land rights and natural resources investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the six Vietnamese detainees had told authorities that they paid $170,000 in bribes each month, including some to Mr. Hok Meng, Brig. Gen. Yun and Brig. Gen. Sarang.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophana confirmed on Tuesday that the case had been transferred to the capital, but declined to comment further. The investigating judge assigned to the case in Phnom Penh, Ya Narin, said it had been sent on Friday following an order from Justice Minister Ang Vong Vattana, but declined to comment on the number or identity of the suspects.
“I cannot tell you because the case is under the investigating process,” he said before hanging up.
Mr. Bonnar welcomed the move to the capital, noting the provincial courts had failed to move the case along.
“We have seen that if the government lets the provincial court manage the case, the legal process could not move forward,” he said. “I think it’s a good decision that the Justice Ministry transferred this case to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and we hope that the court will find justice.”