Alleged timber trafficker Heng Samneang denied charges of illegal logging and obstructing officials during her trial on Thursday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but also provided some incriminating testimony under questioning.
Ms. Samneang, better known as Yeay Proeung—or Grandma Proeung—was one of Stung Treng province’s better-known timber traffickers, according to locals and rights groups.
She was arrested in Stung Treng on October 13 after showing up at a local Forestry Administration office with a group of stick-wielding men. According to military police, who were guarding the office, she and the men tried but failed to retrieve a pile of illegally logged wood that had been found on a nearby rubber plantation the day before.
She was transferred to the municipal court within days, where she was charged with harvesting forest products without a permit, which carries a prison sentence of up to five years, and obstructing public officials, which carries a sentence of up to three months.
At Thursday’s trial, Ms. Samneang denied that she had the intention of taking the timber back by force when she went to the Forestry Administration’s O’Pong Morn triage office, located in Stung Treng City.
She said she was called the night before by a military police officer — whom she knew only as Ath — with an offer to come to the office late that night to buy some timber but was abruptly arrested upon her arrival by another military police officer named Vong Chanda.
“Chanda grabbed my arm and pulled me into the Forestry Administration and closed the door. Then he arrested me after he shot a few times into the air to scare my workers,” she said.
“I reject the accusations from the authorities, and the charges against me are not fair. I think some journalists published untrue information about me because I did not give them money,” she said. “I never do timber business. I just take wood to my house sometimes to make furniture because my business is licensed.”
Under questioning from Presiding Judge Pich Vithiathor, however, Ms. Samneang admitted to taking payment from a Vietnamese national named Ta Khva to have her staff ship timber to him in Vietnam.
“I know him but I never transport wood for him,” she said, immediately going on to contradict herself. “My workers did, and I just prepared my workers, and I got some money to pay for the transport.”
Ms. Samneang did not say when or how many times she shipped wood to Mr. Ta, though Cambodia has had a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam since January 2016.
As a witness, Mr. Chanda, the military police officer, said he was assigned to guard the wood the night of the arrest and was woken up by the arrival of 12 vans at 2:40 in the morning. He said he saw Ms. Samneang and her workers back the vans up to the office to load them with the seized timber when he was attacked.
“Yeay Proeung and the workers pulled up the vehicles to the pile of wood and they tried to hit me. Then I shot into the air three times to disperse them and the workers ran away,” he said.
Sor Vuthy, director of the Forestry Administration’s O’Pong Morn triage, said he was not at the office at the time but testified that his staff were in the process of signing the timber over to Ms. Samneang because she was insisting that it was hers.
He said the timber included 1,301 pieces of luxury-grade Thnong totaling 25.6 cubic meters.
Khlauk Seima, head of the national military police’s working group on forest crime in Stung Treng province, said he suspected local Forestry Administration officials of colluding with Ms. Samneang.
“I think normal people cannot enter a state institution in the middle of the night, so we think Yeay Proeung had protection from the Forestry Administration,” he said.
In the weeks before her arrest, Ms. Samneang gained national notoriety when video footage emerged in which she criticizes Stung Treng journalists for reporting her to authorities even after taking bribes from her to keep quiet about her timber trafficking.
“All journalists are witnesses to my business because they receive money from me,” she is heard telling a group of reporters.
That footage and those remarks did not come up during Thursday’s trial.
Judge Vithiathor said a verdict would be announced on June 27.