Six Kratie province villagers are being held in pre-trial detention for allegedly assaulting police officers during a confrontation in Kratie district’s Thma Kre commune, officials said.
Villagers and human rights workers said the residents of Russie Cha village pay regular bribes to local officials for permission to cut down and smuggle illegal timber, and the dispute stemmed from kickback payments.
Tim Narin, a coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said that on Thursday, a soldier named Ek Kimsour and Te Ry, a forestry administration officer, were paid $150 by villager Chhour Ny, 23.
The two officials departed after receiving the payment, but returned in the afternoon asking for more money, she said.
When the villagers refused to pay, a scuffle broke out, and Ek Kimsour fired his gun into the ground and air and then aimed his weapon at a villager, Tim Narin said.
A group of villagers wrestled with the armed Ek Kimsour and restrained him, at which point district and commune police officers showed up and also got involved in the tussle with villagers.
“The villagers were defending themselves from the soldier’s shooting,” Tim Narin said, adding that other villagers sent a letter with about 80 thumbprints to Kratie officials Monday, asking that they release the six who were detained.
Deputy district police Chief Men Bunthoeun said that the villagers assaulted a district police officer when he reported to the scene.
“They fought with my district police chief,” he said, adding that district police arrested the six on suspicion of attempted murder May 5, and they were sent for questioning at the provincial court Thursday.
Men Bunthoeun declined to comment on whether Ek Kimsour and Te Ry were drunk and soliciting bribes.
Chhun Sokhim, 19, the wife of Chhour Chhun, 25, one of the arrested villagers, said the villagers were in the habit of paying off the officials.
“We never ship plank wood to Phnom Penh without getting agreement from them,” she said.
Kratie provincial police Chief Chuong Seang Hak said the scuffle began when Te Ry spotted illegal timber in one of the villager’s boats.
“They fought with Te Ry and pushed him into the river. Ek Kimsour shot into the air only to stop them,” he said, adding that most villagers in Russie Cha deal in illegal timber.
Chuong Seang Hak said that no authorities to his knowledge have ever received bribes to turn a blind eye to illegal logging.
Som Ravuth, chief clerk for the prosecution at Kratie provincial court, said the six villagers had been arrested on suspicion of trying to kill the two officials, but that they were only being detained on charges of assaulting police officers.