Judge Releases Alleged Wildlife Smugglers on Bail

Three accused wildlife smugglers were released on bail last week by a Pursat provincial court judge following personal threats from people “connected to high-ranking officials,” Conservation International said Wednesday.

A statement released by CI claims that Investigating Judge Leang Suor cited fear for his personal safety as the reason behind his Sept 20 decision to grant bail to suspects Ou Art, Nuth Sitha and Prum Chantha. The driver, identified as Suon Chea Heng, remains in custody.

The four were arrested on Sept 8 by Forestry Administration rangers supported by CI, when a routine checkpoint search turned up the skin and bones of a rare clouded leopard and about 5 kg of Sambar deer meat in the trunk of their Mercedes.

Soon after the arrests, advisers and bodyguards of high-ranking officials contacted the court and demanded the release of everyone but the driver, court staff told CI and the Forestry Administration.

Contacted on Thursday Leang Suor declined to comment on the reported intimidation.

Kong Bin, Pursat provincial court prosecutor, said that the three suspects were released on bail at the request of a Phnom Penh lawyer, whom he declined to identify, because there was not enough evidence to charge them.

“Those three were released on bail because they have never confessed,” he said, adding that the driver has admitted to the smuggling.

He also denied that the investigating judge was intimidated into releasing the suspects.

A Forestry Administration official speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the investigating judge told him that he released the men because he was scared.

“The investigating judge told me he decided to release the three men after he got repeated phone calls from senior government officials’ bodyguards, assistants and the wives of senior officials pressuring him, and he feared for his safety,” the forestry official said.

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