Journalist Murdered in Ratanakkiri

A Cambodian journalist, who reported on forest crimes in Ratanakkiri province for a little-known newspaper, was found murdered in the trunk of his car yesterday, police said.

Hang Serei Odom, 42, a journalist at the Khmer-language Virakchun Khmer Daily, had been missing since Sunday, when he left his home in Banlung City, telling his family he would only been gone for a short time, said Song Bunthanorm, provincial serious crimes police chief.

His body was discovered yesterday afternoon face down, locked in the truck of his Toyota Camry, Mr. Bunthanorm said. Villagers had alerted police to the vehicle, which was emitting a bad smell after it was abandoned in a cashew plantation in O’Chum district’s Cha Ung commune, he said.

“The body was chopped twice with an ax-on the back of the head and the forehead,” he said, adding that police suspect at least two people were involved in the killing.

Mr. Bunthanorm said that the murder was not motivated by robbery because Hang Serei Odom’s belongings were not missing.

“The perpetrators must be people who knew the victim and tricked him to come out of his home to kill him,” Mr. Bunthanorm said. “It was a planned killing.”

Hang Serei Odom’s wife, Im Chanthy-who is seven months pregnant-said her husband had been working as a journalist for four years. He left the house at about 7 p.m. on Sunday, saying he had to meet someone named “Mr. Heng,” she said.

After he did not return and did not answer phone calls, she called police the next morning, Ms. Chanthy said.

The Virakchun Khmer Daily released a statement yesterday condemning the killing of its reporter.

Editor-in-chief Rin Ratanak said Hang Serei Odom had been working for the paper for four months and had exposed a number of cases of powerful and well-connected people linked to illegal logging in Ratanakkiri.

“He wrote stories about illegal logging for luxury wood in Ratanakkiri and the stories he reported involved powerful officials and had a big impact on their businesses,” Mr. Ratanak said.

In his final story for the newspaper on September 6, Hang Serei Odom alleged that the son of a provincial Military Police commander was involved in the illegal timber trade. Hang Serei Odom alleged that the son, who was also a military police officer, was smuggling logs in military-plated vehicles and was involved in extorting money from villagers trying to legally transport wood for legitimate construction purposes.

“If my reporter wrongly reported those logging cases, he should have faced the press law, not been murdered,” said Mr. Ratanak, the newspaper’s editor.

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, said that the victim had been reporting so many stories about deforestation and timber smuggling of late that fellow journalists had feared for his safety.

“Forestry crime and illegal logging for luxury wood are systematically linked to powerful and rich individuals,” Mr. Bonnar said. “Ratanakkiri province is a dangerous place for journalists and forestry activists who work to combat logging and deforestation,” Mr. Bonnar said.

The last journalist to be killed in Cambodia was Khim Sambo-a reporter at an opposition-affiliated newspaper-who was gunned down in July 2008, in the run up to that year’s National Election.

Khim Sambo was shot at point-blank range three times and killed, along with his 21-year-old son, by gunmen on a motorcycle who were never caught.

According to a 2009 report from rights group Licadho, 10 journalists have been murdered in Cambodia since 1993, and many more have been subject to threats against their lives.

No one has ever been brought to justice for the killing of a journalist in Cambodia.

“[The murder] is a big concern and I’m worried for the safety of other journalists in Cambodia,” Pen Samitty, president of the Cambodian Club of Journalists, said yesterday.

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