The Kompong Chhnang provincial court on Tuesday heard the case of five reporters accused of extorting money from an illegal-timber dealer, nearly four years after they were first charged, a court official said Wednesday.
The five reporters—from the Doeum Ampil, Thngay Nish, Norkorwat, Prachea Thepatey newspapers and Apsara TV—stand accused of extorting $300 from a wood smuggler named Tith Sroeu while he was attempting to transport 10 oxcarts full of illegal rosewood through Toek Phos district in November 2010.
Provincial court prosecutor Seng Meng Srun said Wednesday that the case was delayed because he had been forced to take over a backlog of old cases left uninvestigated by his predecessor, Penh Vibol, who is also at the center of Tuesday’s trial, as he is the adopted brother of Mr. Sroeu.
Doeum Ampil reporter Chan Thy, 42—the only suspect present at the hearing, as the other four remain at large—said that Mr. Vibol, the former prosecutor, had fabricated the charges in retaliation because his relationship to Mr. Sroeu was included in a story Mr. Thy wrote about the smuggler’s illicit business.
“We asked the wood dealer where he was transporting the wood from and he told us that he was transporting the wood from Pursat to Kompong Chhnang,” Mr. Thy said, recalling his interaction with Mr. Sroeu. He said Mr. Sroeu admitted, at the time, that he had paid about $150 per cart of luxury wood and was the adopted brother of Mr. Vibol, then the court prosecutor.
“I think that [Mr. Vibol] manufactured the case to put me and the other five reporters in jail, because he was angry that the article about the rosewood dealing mentioned his name,” Mr. Thy said.
Contacted by telephone, Mr. Vibol, who now works for the Ministry of Justice, said he did not even remember the extortion case because it happened “a long time ago.” He declined to comment further.
There were originally six defendants in the case, but Chea Khen, also of Prachea Thepatey, died on Sunday, two days after receiving a summons for Tuesday’s hearing, Mr. Thy said.
“I think that Mr. Chea Khen was falling ill, and he died of a heart attack after receiving the court summons,” he said, explaining that Mr. Khen had long suffered from high blood pressure, and had seemed especially anxious about the case when the reporters met to discuss the court order Friday.
Mr. Meng Srun, the current prosecutor, said a verdict would be announced Tuesday.