Status Protects Wealthy Illegal Logging Suspect

A Forestry Administration official in Kompong Cham province said Thursday that the case of a recent illegal logging bust that netted 20 tons of rosewood would be sent to court Friday, but that the wealthy businessman who owns the warehouse where the timber was found remained untouchable.

On Wednesday, Prak Noma, head of the Forestry Administration’s Kompong Cham cantonment, said the police’s key suspect—warehouse owner Ly Chhun Ou—would not be investigated because of his status as an oknha. The coveted title is granted to anyone who donates at least $100,000 to the state.

Five other men escaped from the warehouse when authorities showed up on Tuesday, but left their identity cards inside two cars and a truck they abandoned when they fled into the forest on foot.

On Thursday, Mr. Noma said the case was moving forward.

“I am now building the case and will send it to court tomorrow,” he said. “We will open an investigation to find the offenders after the court allows us to do so.”

Mr. Noma said the 20 tons of rosewood, which can fetch thousands of dollars per cubic meter, consisted of more than 300 pieces but declined to estimate its total value. He also declined to identify the suspects.

But he insisted once again that Mr. Chhun Ou, the warehouse owner, was not among them because of his title.

“I already told you that we are not able to suspect the warehouse owner as being involved with the rosewood because he is an oknha and he was not present at the scene,” he said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Noma said he would not pursue the oknha for fear of being sued. “If we accuse him, he will file a complaint against us,” he said.

Top officials for the Forestry Administration and the Ministry of Agriculture, which oversees the administration, could not be reached Thursday.

Rights groups have long accused authorities of colluding with illegal loggers and noted the futility of their efforts to curb the trade due to their reticence to go after the well-connected people behind it.

Latt Ky, who leads the natural resources program for rights group Adhoc, said the latest case in Kompong Cham smacked of the same impunity that has long protected the country’s rich.

“I think the authorities cannot solve any crime because they are scared of the power of the oknhas and the high-ranking officials,” he said.

Ironically, all of the illegally logged wood confiscated by authorities in Cambodia must be offered up for sale to oknha and timber magnate Try Pheap, who has been linked by several investigations to the most widespread and lucrative illegal logging racket in the country.

Mr. Pheap was granted first rights to all seized wood in a July 2014 letter from the Council of Ministers that contravenes Cambodia’s Forestry Law, which states that all seized wood must be put up for public auction.

Mr. Pheap has denied any wrongdoing.

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