stung district, Kompong Thom province – Forestry officials normally turn a blind eye to villagers who transport small amounts of wood from Preah Vihear province to Phout village, as many make a small living transporting wood several times per year.
But on Jan 12, Eip Thoeun, 39, went missing after he was arrested and allegedly beaten by military police following a scuffle with forestry officials.
Interviewed on Tuesday, Eip Thoeun’s wife said she fears for her missing husband and began searching for his body the night he was taken away by military police and disappeared.
On the night he disappeared, Eip Thoeun and his two nephews, Sak Thoeurn, 23, and Veng Vath, 18, were taking two oxcarts of wood home when three forestry officials stopped them.
When Stung district forestry chief Chhey Sotha tried to grab the reins of one of the oxcart, the animal startled and its horn cut Chhey Sotha under the eye, Eip Thoeun’s wife Eip Nath said.
Eip Thoeun and his nephew escaped, but half an hour later the forestry officials and four military police officers arrived at his home.
Eip Nath alleged that she and her husband were beaten by two officers while others kept bystanders back with guns. Eip Thoeun was then handcuffed and thrown into the back of a car, Eip Nath and a neighbor said.
After gathering some items for her husband, Eip Nath said she went to the military police station around 9:30 pm but was told Eip Thoeun had already escaped.
“I cried and cried that night,” she said, adding that she did not believe the police officers and searched the area around the military police station for her husband’s body.
Forestry official Chhey Sotha, disputed the family’s story, claiming instead that Eip Thoeun didn’t stop for the forestry officials and had hit him with a bamboo stick.
“I wanted to ask him about the wood,” Chhey Sotha said by telephone after refusing to meet with reporters.
District military police Chief Kol Chhoeurn also denied that his officers, who have since been reassigned to the provincial military police department, beat or even handcuffed Eip Thoeun.
After being taken to the station, Eip Thoeun asked if he could use the bathroom and walked away free after the officers gave him permission.
“Military police officers were careless,” he said.
The nephews were arrested after the court issued an arrest warrant for them, he said, but they were also let off. Kol Chhoeurn said his officers have stopped searching for Eip Thoeun because he received a letter dated Jan 21 in which Eip Nath said she would turn her husband over if the four officers involved were transferred.
However, Eip Nath never turned over her husband, he said.
Eip Nath confirmed that she allowed district Deputy Governor Moul Lon write the letter for her, but denied including a line confirming that she knew that her husband was still alive.
Moul Lon also acknowledged Tuesday that the line was added later and that the original was supposed to say that Eip Nath was committed to continuing the search for her husband.
Staff from the UN human rights office, NGO Licadho and Adhoc are investigating the issue.