A Thai court on Thursday ordered the release of 33 Cambodians who had been held in prison since they were arrested seven weeks ago after crossing the border in Banteay Meanchey province to log valuable rosewood, officials said.
The group of loggers was detained on August 27 after Thai soldiers found them in possession of chainsaws and rosewood logs in Sa Kaeo province, Neth Sary, a Cambodian consul in the province, said at the time.
In court on Thursday, a judge found there was insufficient evidence to convict the men, aged between 17 and 42, who hail from Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces.
“The evidence is still weak and our Cambodian workers did not do any [illegal] actions,” Mr. Sary said Friday, contradicting his statement at the time of the arrest. “So the Thai court decided to release them.”
“We had hired two lawyers to help them because, in principal, the government has to help its own people,” he added.
The 33 were taken to the Poipet border checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey province and released Thursday evening.
Mr. Sary said that most of the men were new to the illegal logging business and had been conned into crossing the border by a ringleader, who has not been identified.
Banteay Meanchey Governor Kousom Saroeuth confirmed that the 33 had returned safely.
At the time the men were arrested, rights workers pointed out that it was a change from the normal method Thai soldiers use to deal with cross-border loggers—firing live rounds at them.
Dozens of Cambodians are killed and more are injured every year crossing the border in search of luxury timber, which is fashioned into furniture and ornaments and sold for huge profits.
Earlier this month, four injured loggers returned to Cambodia after being shot by Thai soldiers across the border in Oddar Meanchey province. A fifth man did not return.