Confusion surrounded the release of seven NGO employees accused of extortion by the Pursat Provincial Court on Monday, with court officials saying the charges still stood, but police claiming they were dropped after intervention from the provincial governor.
The seven men were arrested on Saturday for allegedly seizing a chainsaw from two villagers in Krakor district and demanding $40 for its return rather than reporting it to authorities.
On Sunday, Mo Lida, chief of the provincial police’s minor crimes bureau, said that employees from the same NGO, the Cooperative Protector of Natural Resource Organization, had been extorting money from local logging families for “a long time,” but police had never received a complaint before.
On Monday, it emerged that the seven—Keo Sarun, 68; Sok Roeun, 37; Chea Sak, 36; Sak Thau, 37; Lai Saroeun, 49; Sok Sokhom, 56; and Sam Sarath, 48—had been released.
“The court charged the seven people with extortion, but we released them on bail under court supervision because they committed a minor crime,” said Long Cheap, deputy prosecutor at the provincial court. Extortion is punishable by two to five years in prison and a 4 million to 10 million riel fine, or about $1,000 to $2,500.
However, Mr. Lida said on Monday that the charges had been dropped.
“The deputy prosecutor told us that the court dropped the charges for the seven people because the provincial governor gave an order to release them,” he said.
Krakor district police chief Em Run said he received a telephone call from provincial governor Mao Thanin on Saturday night telling him to release one of the seven, Mr. Sarun, because “he is old and poor and his family has no rice to cook food at home.”
Mr. Run relayed the order to the court, he said, which subsequently released all seven.
Contacted on Monday, Mr. Thanin denied involvement. “The case is in the hands of the court and I am not involved in the release,” the governor said.
As for the authenticity of the NGO, Mr. Cheap said the conservation group was found to have been officially registered as an NGO.
“We have no plans to send a letter to the Interior Ministry asking to delete this organization from their list because the court is still investigating,” he added.