Government officials on Thursday offered no explanation for why Prime Minister Hun Sen arranged a royal pardon for former Ratanakkiri provincial governor Kham Khoeun, who was convicted in one of Cambodia’s most notorious illegal logging cases over a decade ago but never served a day in prison.
Mr. Khoeun received a 17-year prison sentence in 2006 for his role in the “Dragon’s Tail” case, which uncovered a vast timber trafficking ring moving luxury wood from Virachey National Park to Vietnam, netting an estimated $15 million.
Of the 14 government officials, soldiers and police officers handed convictions, the governor was one of nine tried in absentia. He was rumored to have fled to Laos.
On February 24, after Mr. Khoeun had allegedly spent more than a decade on the run, the king granted him a pardon at the prime minister’s request, according to a copy of the document published in the Royal Gazette.
There has been no explanation for Mr. Hun Sen’s request.
His deputy cabinet chief, Pal Chandara, said on Thursday that he was unaware of the request and referred questions to government spokesman Phay Siphan.
Mr. Siphan demurred when asked to explain the decision. He said he was ill-placed to justify the pardon and deferred to the Justice Ministry.
On Wednesday, ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap’s only justification was that previous pardons had also been granted to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and current leader Kem Sokha, so Mr. Khoeun naturally deserved one too.
Unlike in Mr. Khoeun’s case, however, the convictions against Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha were widely seen as politically motivated and met with international rebuke.
Other spokesmen for the Justice Ministry could not be reached on Thursday for comment.
Mr. Khoeun is not the only official caught up in the Dragon’s Tail case to have outlasted their prison sentences as free men.
Among the other eight convicted in absentia and never caught was Moeung Samoeun, the then-provincial military commander. Mr. Samoeun was handed a 15-year prison sentence, but had it cut to six years by the Court of Appeal in 2013.
The then-provincial police chief, Yoeung Baloung, was caught and sentenced to 13 years. However, provincial councilor Nab Bun Heng said on Thursday that Mr. Baloung had his sentence reduced by royal decree and was released from prison about a year ago.
“He is now working on his farm in Ratanakkiri,” he said.
Provincial officials said they still did not know the whereabouts of Mr. Khoeun.
Phon Phanna, however, who runs the provincial military’s research office, said he occasionally runs into Mr. Samoeun, Mr. Baloung, and even Koy Sokha, the Virachey National Park director who was convicted in absentia and sentenced to seven years but never caught.
“I am sure those people have been freed because I meet them when we eat at wedding parties sometimes,” he said.
The government is widely accused by conservation groups and villagers of largely ignoring the role of high-ranking officials, soldiers and police officers—and the wealthy businessmen who know them—in the country’s rampant illegal logging trade.