The environmental NGO at the center of an extortion scandal in Siem Reap province has a track record of using its employees as racketeers in order to enrich itself, according to officials who have previously dealt with the organization.
The Natural Resource Prevention and Development Organization is facing closure by the Interior Ministry after four of its staff members were arrested on the Tonle Sap river on Saturday for confiscating a fisherman’s nets and demanding a $100 ransom for their return. According to police, the NGO workers were dressed in uniforms similar to those worn by officials from the government’s Fisheries Administration.
On Monday, a police official in the area said that he regularly received reports of similar racketeering but had never been able to catch offenders. And on Wednesday, Hang Hun, chief of the provincial police’s water traffic bureau, said his officers arrested four extortionists last year who turned out to be staff of the Natural Resource Prevention and Development Organization.
On that occasion, Mr. Hun said, locals reported that 24 men aboard four boats came marauding through the Chong Kneas fishing community, collecting about $500, two cans of diesel fuel and two cans of gasoline. When authorities arrived, he said, they managed to arrest four men as the rest escaped on the vessels.
“We did not dare to chase them because they had guns,” Mr. Hun said. “Those people were working for an NGO just to extort money from fishermen in the area. If the fishermen refused to hand over money, they confiscated boats and property. They are extortionate thieves.”
Of the four arrested in last year’s raid, two were stationed in Siem Reap, while two were supposed to be working in Battambang province at the time, according to Mr. Hun. Among those arrested on Saturday, two were supposed to be working in Battambang and two in Kompong Thom province.
Kinh Voeut, director of the Natural Resource Prevention and Development Organization, has said that the four arrested on Saturday were supposed to be collecting information in their respective provinces, and that he did not know why they were in Siem Reap.
Mr. Voeut has also said that he never received any complaints of extortion concerning his staff members, and that they would be fired if the court found them guilty.
However, Mr. Hun—whose account was corroborated by Phuong Lina, head of the Fisheries Administration’s Siem Reap cantonment —said that according to the four arrested last year, extortion was part of the NGO’s mission.
“They told us that they were required to collect at least 300 million riel [about $75,000] per year for their boss,” he said.
The four most recent suspects —Khan Sokhem, 43; Khan Touch, 48; Chhim Chhing, 38; and Lim Savuth, 52—have been charged with extortion and placed in provisional detention. They face up to five years in prison if found guilty.
The Natural Resource Prevention and Development Organization, meanwhile, could be shut down by the Interior Ministry under the controversial NGO law, which was adopted in August despite fierce opposition by donors and rights workers, who fear it will be used to punish NGOs for the deeds of their employees.
Chhan Chansopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s administration department, said on Wednesday that if the four were found to have used documents issued by the NGO, such as identification badges, the NGO would be held responsible.
“We will shut down this organization if some documents are found linking the offenders [to it],” he said, adding that the director, Mr. Voeut, would be summoned for questioning once a full report had been received from Siem Reap provincial police.
Mr. Voeut said on Wednesday that he had traveled to Siem Reap to investigate the claims against his employees. Asked to explain the work of his NGO, he said he had 26 employees dedicated to collecting information related to the destruction of natural resources across the northern provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang, Kompong Thom, Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey.
He could not be reached in the evening to respond to questions about last year’s arrests.