Well-known timber trafficker Heng Samneang was charged on Sunday with illegal logging and interfering with the work of public officials, according to a Phnom Penh Municipal Court officer, days after she allegedly tried to retrieve some of her ill-gotten timber with the help of a few thugs.
Ms. Samneang, better known as Yeay Proeung, or Grandma Proeung, was arrested in Stung Treng province on Thursday after showing up at a local Forestry Administration office with a group of stick-wielding men. According to military police, who were guarding the office, she and the men tried but failed to retrieve a pile of illegally logged wood that had been found on a nearby rubber plantation the day before.
On Sunday, the Phnom Penh court’s deputy secretary, Sous Vithearandy, said Ms. Samneang had been transferred to the capital and was now in provisional detention.
“Yeay Proeung was charged today by Investigating Judge Than Leng and she was detained at Prey Sar prison,” he said.
Mr. Vithearandy said she was charged with harvesting forest products without a permit under the Forestry Law, which carries a prison sentence of one to five years, and obstructing public officials under the Criminal Code, which carries a sentence of one to three months.
Tun Yoeut, a deputy prosecutor at the Stung Treng Provincial Court, confirmed that the case had been transferred to Phnom Penh.
“We sent the offender to court in Phnom Penh on Friday following orders from the upper level,” she said. “I think our work is not going smoothly, so the upper level ordered us to send the offender to Phnom Penh because this is a big case.”
Ms. Yoeut declined to explain who she meant by the “upper level” or to elaborate on the aspects of the provincial court’s operations that might have concerned them.
Hou Sam Ol, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he believed that top court and military police officials were worried that Ms. Samneang had too many friends in high places in Stung Treng to see the case proceed without interference.
“Yeay Proeung has had a timber business for more than 10 years and everyone knows it; that’s why the authorities in Stung Treng province have not taken action,” he said. “The upper levels think the provincial authorities have been protecting her.”
Mr. Sam Ol expected some of those provincial officials to be caught up in the case as it proceeds.
“We have seen that the provincial authorities always stop some timber businesses transporting wood in small vehicles, but they never stopped Yeay Proeung’s wood,” he said.
On at least two occasions last month, authorities in Stung Treng said that Ms. Samneang was suspected of involvement in timber-related crimes, but in both cases she ultimately avoided prosecution or other punishment.
She gained national notoriety after video footage emerged last month in which she criticizes journalists in the province for reporting her to authorities even after taking bribes from her to keep quiet about her timber trafficking.
“All journalists are witnesses to my business because they received money from me,” she told a group of reporters.