A police official in Kompong Thom province has so far avoided prosecution in a weekend timber smuggling case involving his brother, three unidentified loggers and three carloads of rosewood logs marked with his name.
The official denies involvement, claiming authorities have long tried to link him to the lucrative trade in illegally logged wood.
The valuable timber at the center of the case was seized late Sunday night by a team of police and military police assembled by provincial court prosecutor Ith Sothea, who said an informant told him the wood was in transit near Stung Sen City just one hour earlier.
Mr. Sothea said he and the officers were stationed along National Road 6 in the city at 11:30 p.m. when a convoy of Toyota cars drove past, loaded with what appeared to be large pieces of high-grade wood.
His men gave chase, he said, and pursued the three vehicles into Prasat Balaing district and onto an estate owned by Yim Phoan, deputy chief of the province’s anti-economic crime police.
“The three drivers stopped the cars on the property belonging to Mr. Phoan and ran into the house but later escaped on foot when officers entered the house to search for the three men,” he said.
While Mr. Phoan, 47, was not at home, his younger brother, Yit Sovan, 37, and Mr. Sovan’s wife, Lim Neat, 34, were housesitting at the time, according to Mr. Sothea. Both were arrested on suspicion of colluding with the drivers, he said.
“We arrested the couple for keeping rosewood at their house. But we let his wife return home because she was not found to be involved with the wood,” he said, adding that Mr. Sovan was questioned by Investigating Judge Khorn Sakol on Monday and jailed on charges of illegally harvesting and transporting forest products.
After detaining the couple at about midnight, the prosecutor said, his officers inspected the abandoned cars and found 55 lengths of luxury-grade rosewood inside, amounting to about 2 cubic meters in total.
He said that while the origin and intended destination of the timber were still unknown, many of the pieces were marked with a single name, written in Khmer: “Phoan.”
Despite this piece of evidence, and the fact that the smugglers drove straight to Mr. Phoan’s house when faced with the threat of arrest, Mr. Sothea said investigators had made no attempt to detain the official.
“We have not yet concluded that Mr. Phoan is involved with the wood,” he said. “We will summon Mr. Phoan for questioning if we find out he is involved.”
Mr. Sakol, the investigating judge, confirmed the charges against Mr. Sovan but said he was not convinced of the man’s guilt.
“He told us that he was staying at the house to guard it for his brother but did not know about the wood,” he said.
Like the prosecutor, the judge said there was not enough evidence to justify detaining Mr. Phoan.
Mr. Phoan, however, said the court had already made up its mind.
“I think the court prosecutor has decided that I’m guilty and will order my arrest because he has accused me for a long time of being a dealer in the timber business,” he said, denying any involvement in the trade.
Mr. Phoan said his brother—who he claimed was innocent as well—called him moments after the smugglers barged into his house on Sunday night, just before the police and military police showed up.
“They warned my brother not to tell people that they were staying inside the house,” he said.
He also said the raid on his house was unlawful and that he planned to sue Mr. Sothea for searching his property without a warrant.
“I am now working on a complaint to file against the prosecutor because he led a group of police and military police to inspect my house without a court warrant, and they arrested my brother and put him in jail without carefully searching and investigating,” he said.
As for the rosewood with his name on it, Mr. Phoan accused authorities of falsifying evidence. “I think the court put my name on the wood because they want to mistreat me and put me in jail.”
Contacted for a response, Mr. Sothea dismissed the claim.
“Nobody could have written his name on the wood because there were more than 10 officers there. They just took a photo and saw his name on the wood,” he said.
The vast majority of the country’s rosewood trees have been felled by illegal loggers to meet rabid international demand for the timber, which can fetch thousands of dollars per cubic meter. In 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a directive that outlawed not just the logging of rosewood, but also its transport and sale.