Forestry Administration officials in Stung Treng province on Tuesday gave two conflicting accounts of the release of 12 men caught smuggling high-grade timber down the Sesan River without making them pay the requisite fine—both of which suggested that authorities had broken the law.
The 12 were arrested on Friday with about 80 logs that were found hidden underneath lower-grade wood they had been floating down the river. On Sunday, the head of the Forestry Administration’s Stung Treng triage, Ly Kurn, said they would all be fined and released.
The Forestry Law stipulates that timber smugglers must be fined an amount between two and three times the value of the contraband.
On Tuesday, however, Mr. Kurn said all 12 men were set free on Sunday night and would not have to pay the fine.
“The 12 people were released and they did not pay the fine,” he said. “It was an order from the upper level.”
Mr. Kurn declined to say who gave the order.
Chhoeun Tola, who heads the Forestry Administration’s Stung Treng cantonment, which oversees the triage, said he did not order the release but explained that the group had to be freed after 48 hours in custody. He said the men were fined, but given a month to pay, adding that the amount had yet to be calculated.
“We already released the 12 people on Sunday night because they didn’t have the money to pay the fine. That’s why we let the people return home to get the money to pay us,” he said.
“We gave them one month to come back and pay. If they don’t, we will send the case to court to be managed according to the law.”
Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, which runs the Forestry Administration, said he knew nothing about the incident, but that administration officials had no right to order subordinates to release criminal suspects of their own accord.
“The upper level has no right to order the release of [illegal] loggers because this is a criminal case. If the upper level has ordered offenders to be released, the upper level has broken the law,” he said.
“Only the court prosecutor has the right to release offenders. If the Forestry Administration in Stung Treng released the offenders, it broke the law.”