Defending a decision by his office to seize equipment from a 992-hectare plot of land being developed by British businessman Gregg Fryett in 2012, a forestry official presented the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday with a 2007 document from the Agriculture Ministry apparently freezing work on the land.
Mr. Fryett and four associates have been imprisoned since 2013 over charges including fraud and the illegal clearing of land in Banteay Meanchey province, which he says are part of a setup that allowed authorities to illegally take equipment and land from his company.
He has long held that Van Sophanna, then-chief of the Forestry Administration’s Northern Tonle Sap inspectorate, abused the power of his office by filing an erroneous complaint against his company, International Green Energy (IGE), as a pretext for provincial officials to raid his development.
But testifying to the court, Khor Sochetra, a former subordinate of Mr. Sophanna and now a division forestry chief in Kompong Thom province, said the government had decided years earlier to freeze work on the land in question.
“The Ministry of Agriculture issued a letter in August 2007 asking to postpone all of the activities of the company, which did not request permission, nor did the Ministry of Agriculture ever provide permission” to develop the land, he said, summarizing a letter presented to the court.
“The IGE company was clearing the protected forest area without permission,” Mr. Sochetra said. “It belonged to the state.”
The state granted the land in 2007 to a company owned by Mao Malay, the wife of former military commander-in-chief Ke Kim Yan who allegedly transferred the land to Mr. Fryett for $2 million.
In 2012, local Forestry Administration officials raided the land and seized $1.5 million in equipment meant to be used to create a jatropha plantation that would produce biofuel.
“After we raided and confiscated machinery, we organized documents to file a complaint against the company for illegally logging the forest without permission,” Mr. Sochetra said.
Mr. Sochetra said it was unclear how IGE had been able to start work on the land if the government was supposed to be protecting it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just saw that the company had already cleared nearly all of the plot of land.”
Ms. Malay has never been called to testify in Mr. Fryett’s case.
Taking the stand after Mr. Sochetra, deputy provincial administration officer Chhoeun Soviya said his former supervisor, Ouk Keo Rattanak, was the official in charge of land concessions for the province. Mr. Keo Rattanak was arrested in January 2014 and charged with selling IGE a forged land title.
“I know Mr. Keo Rattanak used to receive letters or he might have had information about it,” Mr. Soviya said.
Asked whether his boss had held the authority to singlehandedly grant the concession in question, Mr. Soviya said he had “never seen or heard about land concessions.”
The 992-hectare plot of land is only a portion of the land that IGE planned to clear, with an adjacent 5,000 hectare land concession also allegedly obtained illegally, though work there never began.