Four men who set up an illegal roadblock in Kampot province to extort money from villagers transporting wood were released without charge on Saturday, with a court prosecutor calling their offense “very minor.”
The men had told villagers in Chhuk district that they were from the Resource and Conservation Protection Group and were checking for illegal logging activity in the area, but villagers complained to police that they were being extorted for transporting firewood and other forest products, according to provincial police chief Mao Chanmathurith.
Brigadier General Chanmathurith said locals told police that the men had been operating a roving roadblock in the commune for nearly a month, charging villagers small sums of cash to pass through with wood.
He said the four men—Kheng Rim, 31; Kong Hun, 40; Nhoeng Bunet, 32; and Viet Sopheak, 37—were arrested on Thursday in Trapaing Phlaing commune, at the site of the roadblock, and sent to the Kampot Provincial Court on Friday. He said they insisted they were genuine conservationists and that their roadblock was legitimate, despite the fact that it is not legal for private organizations to stop motorists and seek fees.
“They were released by the court’s chief prosecutor, Ek Chenghuot, on Saturday at about 3 p.m.” he said. “It was at the chief prosecutor’s discretion. We dare not go against his decision.”
Mr. Chenghuot confirmed the men were released without charge, despite having been caught in the act of manning the checkpoint.
“Their offense is very minor, so we just advised them to stop doing it,” he said, adding that one of the four men had been carrying a card identifying him as a member of the Resource and Conservation Protection Group but could not recall which one.
Details about the supposed natural-resource protection organization were scant yesterday, with neither the police chief nor prosecutor able to provide information on whether it conducted legitimate activities.
However, Mam Kesey, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said he had heard reports from other parts of Kampot that people identifying themselves as members of the group were taking money from villagers in exchange for not reporting illegal forestry activities.
Chut Odom, the head of the Natural Resource Protection Group, an established conservation NGO that was founded by his father, murdered environmental activist Chut Wutty, said he had heard similar stories of extortion in Kampot, Pursat and Koh Kong provinces.
“They only take money from villagers,” he said. “They do not do environmental work.”