A consortium of journalists on Wednesday sent a report to the governor of Kompong Chhnang province claiming that a man arrested last week for murdering one of their associates was framed in an attempt to cover up an illegal fishing syndicate with close connections to police.
Yang Phealang, 36, who recharged batteries for a living, was arrested on October 14 for the murder of Suon Chan, 44, a journalist who reported primarily on illegal fishing.
Suon Chan was murdered on the evening of January 31 by a group of six men—allegedly including Mr. Phealang—who beat him with bamboo poles as he walked to buy cigarettes at a shop near his home in Cholkiri district’s Peam Chhkork commune. The five other suspects remain at large.
The four-page report from the seven journalists—including reporters for Apsara TV and Kampuchea Thmey newspaper—claims Suon Chan was actually murdered by four men who are not wanted by police. The report says the men—Saing Seng Ieng, Rum Ra and brothers Khim Nak and Khim Nun—are known to use illegal fishing techniques and are protected by police.
“The hit man, Saing Seng Ieng, is an active illegal fisherman in the area,” the report says. “His parents are close friends of Kong Sothy, Peam Chhkork commune police chief, and Him Yong, Cholkiri district police chief.”
Through their investigations, the journalists, a mixture of print and broadcast reporters based in Kompong Chhnang, found that Mr. Sothy and Mr. Yong “colluded with the hit man’s parents in illegal fishing (using electric tools) and the illegal transport of fish.”
Mr. Seng Ieng’s parents are identified only by their given names—So and Vannak—in the report.
In their report to the governor, which is based on interviews with residents around the scene of the beating, the journalists claim villagers quickly identified the four suspects, but that police failed to arrest or charge them. The report claims that arrest warrants for the six scapegoats—or “plastic killers” —were only issued, in June, because of mounting pressure to take action.
“[C]ommune police chief Kong Sothy created a plastic killer and arrested [Mr.] Phealeng instead of the four hit men,” it says.
The report also says that on the day of Mr. Phealeng’s arrest, he had heeded a summons to appear at the police station, where Mr. Sothy beat him bloody with the butt of an AK-47 rifle before detaining him.
Contacted Wednesday, Mr. Sothy defended the integrity of the investigation and the arrest of Mr. Phealeng.
“Mr. Phealeng is not a plastic killer…. We arrested him with an arrest warrant,” he said. “The hit men are still at large—I know because they are all from my commune.”
Mr. Yong, the district police chief, answered his phone and identified himself Wednesday but then claimed a reporter had the wrong number and hung up after the topic of the case was raised. Further attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The journalists’ report was also forwarded to Kompong Chhnang provincial police chief Prak Vuthy, who dismissed it when contacted Wednesday.
“I also received the journalists’ report to the governor about the plastic killer, but we already have warrants to arrest five suspects,” he said. “The suspects have escaped to live in Kompong Thom province and we are cooperating with police there to find them.”
Sieng Seng, publisher of infrequently printed the Meakea newspaper, which ran some of Suos Chan’s stories, said he was convinced that the murder was directly linked to the journalist’s work exposing illegal fishing.
Mr. Seng said Suos Chan had worked with the paper for about three years. “He was an activist who took pictures and video of illegal fishing,” he said. “This is a case of revenge taken on our reporter after his article was printed the previous month.”
Sok Sovan, president of the Press Council of Cambodia, which Suos Chan was part of, appealed to the provincial governor, Chhuor Chandoeun, to ensure the real killers are arrested.
“The Cholkiri district police chief knew all the suspects who killed our reporter, but they did not make arrests,” he said.
Mr. Chandoeun could not be reached.