Police Shoot Dead Suspected Log Smuggler

One man was killed and a second was seriously injured when police opened fire on a car suspected of carrying illegally logged timber in Mondolkiri province’s Keo Seima Protected Forest on Wednesday night, according to police.

Vann Sophanith, 25, the driver of the vehicle, died after being shot through the chest. Pat Sou Kany, 22, the stepson of a deputy provincial military police commander, was shot in the torso and sent to Vietnam in serious condition for treatment. 

Pheng Sokheng, whom police say fired the bullets, was an officer in the National Police sent to the province to help protect the Keo Seima forest, according to Nhem Vanny, Mondolkiri provincial police chief.

Mr. Vanny said the car—carrying four people—had failed to stop at a checkpoint as it drove out of the forest, leading the officers to fire a warning shot and then a single bullet into the vehicle.

“The group of [police] called for the car to stop because they thought that the people may have committed a crime, but they did not stop,” Mr. Vanny said.

“One bullet went flying into the sky and another bullet hit the man in the back seat and ricocheted into the man driving the car,” he said.

After Vann Sophanith was shot, Mr. Vanny said, the car moved forward about 300 meters before coming to a stop. The two uninjured men ran into the forest.

The group that had attempted to stop the Toyota Camry, which included forestry administration officials and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soldiers, then searched the vehicle and found that it was not carrying any timber.

Mr. Vanny said that Mr. Sokheng, who fired the shots, was being questioned by the provincial military police. “Using arms like this when the suspect is unarmed or standing still, it is absolutely wrong,” he said.

Tensions over illegal logging in southern Mondolkiri has risen sharply in recent months, with villagers that rely on the forests for their livelihoods saying in June that they could no longer count on authorities to protect the forests because they were often complicit in the plundering.

In February, a team of more than 20 provincial police and military police surrounded the Keo Seima district home of provincial RCAF commander Brigadier General Chhit Meng, who was suspected of being involved in the illegal timber trade.

Authorities found more than 50 pieces of luxury timber in Brig. Gen. Meng’s possession but no arrests were made.

In May, during a pre-dawn raid on a convoy of suspected loggers, a military police officer pulled a gun and put it to the head of Keo Seima district governor Sin Vanvuth before escaping.

In January, Sok Ratha, an investigator for local rights group Adhoc, filed an attempted murder complaint after the driver of an SUV attempted to run him down as he investigated claims that a company reportedly owned by the wife of deputy provincial governor Yim Lux was illegally clearing land in Sen Monorom City.

Earlier this month, Heng Chantra, deputy chief of the Sen Monorom City forestry division, was shot by an unknown assailant while investigating a tip that vehicles loaded with luxury timber were heading toward the Vietnamese border.

Svay Sam Eang, another deputy provincial governor, said that after Wednesday’s incident, he called a meeting with local officials to discuss the growing lawlessness in Mondolkiri.

Mr. Sam Eang said that as logging spiraled out of control and more loggers, officials and forestry activists came to the province, he could no longer keep track of which officials were supposed to be doing what, and which were acting illegally.

“To avoid anarchy, we need greater control over who comes to join the military police and the use of guns,” he said.

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