Customs officers have released a pair of trucks that local officials said were seized late last month while being used to smuggle timber belonging to business mogul Kith Meng into Vietnam in breach of a government ban, according to police.
The two trucks were transporting wood for Ang and Associates Lawyers, a subsidiary of Mr. Meng’s Royal Group, when they were seized on March 30 within meters of the Vietnam border in Tbong Khmum province and well off the route to Takeo province, their official destination. Local officials at the time said the drivers told officers they were headed for Vietnam, which has been off limits to Cambodian timber exports for more than a year.
On Tuesday, the head of the Tbong Khmum police force’s economic crimes bureau, Kong Vichet, said customs officers released the trucks before the Khmer New Year holiday, which started on Friday, without explanation.
“Customs released the trucks and the wood a week before Khmer New Year, but I don’t know why they were released or where the trucks were allowed to go,” he said.
“Please do not tell customs I said they released the trucks because they will get angry at me,” he added.
Kun Nhem, director of the Finance Ministry’s customs department, declined to comment on the case on Tuesday and customs officers in Tbong Khmum could not be reached.
Provincial forestry officials, court officers, police and military police, who spoke about the case initially, also declined to comment on Tuesday, all referring questions to customs officers.
Mr. Meng also declined to speak with a reporter.
In the days immediately after the trucks were seized, along with the nearly 18 cubic meters of first-grade timber they were each hauling, local officials said they were sure the trucks were headed to Vietnam.
“One truck was stopped about 20 meters from the Choam Kravien checkpoint and another was stopped about 60 meters from the Khlar Khmum checkpoint,” Prum Vuthy, commander of the Memot district military police, said at the time.
“We are sure the trucks were attempting to cross the border to Vietnam because the place has no other roads going anywhere else, only Vietnam.”
The checkpoints, both located at the ends of remote dirt roads, also lie dozens of kilometers away from the most practical route to Takeo from Stung Treng province, from which the trucks had come.
Ang and Associates is logging a 36,000-hectare area in Stung Treng where Royal Group is preparing a reservoir for its Lower Sesan II hydropower dam, a project beset by allegations of illegal logging.
Had the two trucks seized at the border crossed into Vietnam, they would have broken a ban on all timber exports to the country that has been in place since January last year.
Chea Hean, director of the Natural Resource and Wildlife Protection Organization, an NGO, said on Tuesday that those who released the trucks were just as guilty of a crime as the drivers and whoever might have instructed them to take the timber to Vietnam.
“I think this is illegal because authorities released the [trucks] without finding the offenders,” he said.
Mr. Hean said he would investigate the case himself and file a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Unit if he confirmed that the trucks and timber had in fact been released.
“I think that if the company did not pay a bribe to authorities, they would not have released,” he said.
On the day The Cambodia Daily published its first story about the seizures, Kim Seng, identifying himself as a representative for Ang and Associates in Stung Treng, called the newspaper and offered to pay the editors an unspecified sum of money if they removed the article from the newspaper’s website.