A former provincial governor convicted but never jailed for his role in a massive illegal logging scandal—involving as much as $15 million worth of wood taken from one of the country’s largest protected areas—has been granted a royal pardon at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Kham Khoeun, the former governor of Ratanakkiri province, was swept up in the notorious “Dragon’s Tail” logging case more than 10 years ago. The case implicated several top provincial officials—including police and border police officers, Forestry Administration officials and soldiers. He was sentenced in 2006 to 17 years in prison for taking bribes, destruction of the environment and falsifying police reports.
The royal decree indicates Mr. Khoeun was granted a pardon for his sentence at the request of Mr. Hun Sen. It was signed by King Norodom Sihamoni, in a document dated February 24.
The decree, recently published in the Royal Gazette, says the pardon was effective from the date of the signature.
Kim Santepheap, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, said on Wednesday that the pardon was made in accordance with the law.
“I think that the granting of the pardon is fair because it was made following judicial procedure,” he said.
“We have seen the king giving pardons to Mr. Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy,” he said, referring to the current and past CNRP presidents—though their pardons were for convictions in court cases widely considered politically motivated and made amid public pressure.
“So Mr. Kham Khoeun should also receive the pardon like the other prisoners,” Mr. Santepheap said.
The Dragon’s Tail illegal logging case first emerged in 2004 after World Bank representatives flew over Virachey National Park to inspect a $5 million project they were financing in the 332,500-hectare protected area, only to find signs of rampant logging, including a widespread network of logging trails and large stockpiles of felled timber.
A subsequent investigation found that hundreds of truckloads of luxury wood had been cut down in Virachey and transported to Vietnam, with officials estimating the value of the trafficking ring’s trade to be as high as $15 million.
Mr. Khoeun was among several top officials implicated—including the then-chief of provincial police and the sub-military region commander—though many of them were tried in absentia and never saw prison time. He denied allegations of his involvement at the time.
Mr. Khoeun was thought to have moved to Laos to live with relatives during the trial and remained there in the years since. Interior Ministry officials have insisted over the years that they have sought to arrest Mr. Khoeun, but he remained at large.
On Wednesday, Mr. Santepheap, the Justice Ministry spokesman, said he did not know Mr. Khoeun’s current whereabouts.
Pen Bonnar, a senior investigator for NGO Adhoc in Phnom Penh and the rights group’s Ratanakkiri coordinator during Mr. Khoeun’s governorship, said he was surprised to hear of the pardon as Mr. Khoeun had not served a day in prison.
“The royal pardon for him is an injustice for other prisoners,” he said. “But I think the pardon is related to the understanding that this prisoner used to be the senior official of the [Cambodian] People’s Party.”
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