Court in No Hurry to Charge Timber Traders

As the government prepares to start auctioning off the 70,000 cubic meters of illegal timber it has seized so far this year, not one of the companies on whose property it was found—nor anyone else—has been charged over the wood, following months of court procedures.

The lack of progress is fueling old doubts about whether the government, oft accused of facilitating much of the country’s illegal timber trade, wants to identify and prosecute those responsible.

Most of the wood, about 62,000 cubic meters, will be put under the gavel in Mondolkiri province beginning on June 27 in seven lots, one for each of the companies.

In April, a deputy prosecutor at the Mondolkiri Provincial Court, So Sovithya, said he was pursuing cases filed by the government against four or five companies. He refused to name them but said the one-month window they had to present themselves for questioning had nearly expired.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sovithya said the court had still not laid even provisional charges against anyone in any of the cases. He said none of the firms had sent representatives for questioning and that the deadline for appearing had been extended indefinitely.

“So far, we have summoned some people for questioning, but some of them asked us for a delay,” he said.

The deputy prosecutor said the court granted the requests and decided not to set a new deadline at all.

“We dare not to set a deadline…and we haven’t charged anyone yet,” he said. “We are following the procedure, and it is not easy, like you think.”

Mr. Sovithya said that losing the evidence once it is auctioned off would not hamper the court’s investigations.

“We already have the figures and photos,” he said. “We have the documents and the task force has checked [them] already.”

Environmental rights groups and activists were wary of the government’s intentions from the moment Prime Minister Hun Sen created that task force in January and ordered it to root out illegal timber stocks across Cambodia’s eastern provinces. They wondered whether the latest campaign was “a crackdown or a shakedown” designed to consolidate the timber trade in the hands of a few government-favored dealers.

The 70,000 cubic meters the task force has seized is enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 12-meter shipping containers. But rights groups have warned that it will have little lasting impact unless the rich and powerful people leading the illicit trade are properly prosecuted.

Sok Ratha, a coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Mondolkiri, said the provincial court’s progress—or lack thereof—offered little encouragement.

“The court and the government will have a hard time convicting those individuals because they are powerful people, rich people, oknhas and excellencies or those close to high-ranking government officials. I think that even if they are convicted, it won’t be serious,” he said.

Mr. Ratha also questioned the court’s indifference about losing its evidence.

“The court must have witnesses and evidence,” he said. “When the government auctions off the confiscated timber, our NGO really wonders what procedures it will use to [investigate].”

Some of the companies raided by the task force have long been accused by local residents of illegally logging the forests around their concessions. Those that have responded to the claims have denied any wrongdoing or said that the wood found on their properties was not theirs.

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