The alleged leader of a group that planned to clear and occupy state forest in Pursat province in order to later sell the land was jailed on Thursday, while 16 alleged accomplices were sent home and warned not to return, officials said.
Chea Sarou, 55, was charged with clearing and occupying forestry land after authorities accused him of gathering more than 100 families from several provinces to cut down the forest in Phnom Kravanh district’s Samrong commune.
“The man has been charged by Investigating Judge Mao Sina, and he has been sent to the provincial prison for provisional detention,” said provincial court spokesman Long Cheap. The charge carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.
District police chief Vong Saveth said Mr. Sarou had gathered families from the provinces of Prey Veng, Kompong Speu, Pailin and Kompong Cham to take over the land.
He was arrested on Tuesday while clearing the forest alongside 16 people, Mr. Saveth said, as authorities removed 28 makeshift shelters and confiscated two chainsaws. Mr. Sarou’s 16 alleged accomplices were arrested, but then sent home after being warned not to return, he said.
The group had already cleared about 200 hectares since May while avoiding authorities, Mr. Saveth added.
“They cleared the forest and planned to sell the land to businesspeople,” he said. “We previously went to the area to stop the clearing, but they always ran away into the forest.”
Mr. Saveth said he did not know to whom the group planned to sell the land, or how much they hoped to charge.
Hang Vanthorn, chief of the local Forestry Administration cantonment, said Mr. Sarou had been arrested to set an example for others.
“The offender refused to confess to the crime, but we have enough evidence to prove he did it,” Mr. Vanthorn said.
Last month, 10 armed soldiers were sent to confront 130 people also illegally clearing a swath of forest overlapping two national parks in Kompong Speu province.