The three conservationists shot dead in Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary last week reportedly agreed to accept a bribe in exchange for allowing the illegal logging, but still reported the incident.
A detailed National Police report obtained yesterday said the shooting – which killed a forest ranger, a military police officer and a Wildlife Conservation Society official – involved a bribe of five million Vietnamese dong, or about $220, for not cracking down on illegal logging.
Mondulkiri Provincial Court on Monday charged Phal Penh, chief of the O’Rolear border post, Kert Veha, a military officer, and Kert Veta, a military commander, with premeditated murder.
Three other suspects – Chheang Vannith, Lay Savy and Torn Theara – were charged with forestry crimes. All six are now in pretrial detention.
On January 18, according to the report, a Vietnamese man named only as Chin met with Mr Penh, Mr Theara, a border post police officer, and Mr Veta, deputy commander of platoon 3 of the provincial sub-military’s regiment 2.
Mr Chin asked permission to take four motorbikes and two chainsaws to log in Pouyam village, in O’Raing district’s Sen Monorom commune, for one week and pay five million dong for each motorbike, read the report.
They agreed that Mr Penh and Mr Theara would share ten million dong while Mr Veta would take the other ten million to share with his boss, the commander of platoon 3 at border post 103.
On the morning of January 30, the three conservationists – forest ranger Tern Soknai, military police officer Sek Vathana, and WCS official Thol Kna – along with local villager Poum Nga, rode three motorbikes to inspect road construction, and also check an area where Mr Nga had asked to cut trees to build his house, according to the report.
“When they arrived in the O’Rolear area, they saw two Vietnamese driving motorbikes carrying timber. They followed them until they came to a shelter with ten Vietnamese, two chainsaws and 75 pieces of luxury wood,” the report said.
“Then the Vietnamese told Mr Soknai that they had been given permission to log the area by Mr Penh, Mr Theara and Mr Savy. Later, the Vietnamese man named Chin called border post chief Mr Penh to intervene.”
The report said Mr Soknai, who reported to Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary director Din Bunthoeun, was advised to turn back because they did not have enough forces to crack down on the suspects.
However, Mr Soknai confiscated two chainsaws and told the loggers to go back to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese again phoned Mr Penh, who passed the phone to his subordinate, Mr Theara, to negotiate with Mr Soknai, who agreed to take five million dong to not take action against the loggers, the report continued.
Mr Theara told Mr Veta that the forest ranger wanted to crack down on the Vietnamese.
Mr Bunthoeun, the director of the sanctuary, asked deputy prosecutor Mam Vanda for permission to take action against the group of loggers. Mr Vanda then phoned Leng Sorphoan, border police commander of battalion 621, and told him what he had heard.
Mr Penh, who was angry because Mr Soknai always disturbed the area, drove his car to get his AK-47. He phoned Mr Veha to take his gun as well, who reported the story to Mr Veta.
Mr Theara didn’t go because he didn’t have a motorbike, the report said.
When they arrived at the scene, Mr Sorphoan phoned Mr Penh to ask why the Vietnamese were logging there and told him the incident had already been reported to the prosecutor.
Mr Penh became enraged and asked Mr Veha what they should do next. “So do we kill them or not?” he reportedly asked.
“While they were talking they saw a military police officer approaching carrying a chainsaw on back of his motorbike and an AK-47. Mr Penh and Mr Veha pointed their guns at him and asked where he was coming from,” the report said.
The military police officer replied he was coming from the forest and moved his gun to the front of his body. Mr Penh immediately fired five bullets at him, killing him instantly, it added.
He then pointed his gun at the forest ranger and WCS official, asking why they had reported the incident to the prosecutor.
Mr Soknai denied reporting anything, to which Mr Penh asked why the prosecutor had called his superior.
Mr Penh then fired one bullet at the WCS official, knocking him to the ground, and another shot hit the thigh of the forest ranger. Mr Soknai begged for forgiveness, but Mr Penh fired two more rounds, killing him instantly.
The WCS official died later on the way to hospital and the other victim, Mr Nga, escaped from the scene.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng expressed sorrow over the deaths of the conservationists.
“We are very regretful because this forest is a sanctuary that sells carbon credits, so why did they allow outsiders to cut timber?” he said.
Sao Sopheap, cabinet chief of the Environment Ministry and National Military Police deputy commander Hong Vinol, who led the investigation, could not be reached for comment.
Provincial police chief Ouk Samnang rejected the notion that the victims had negotiated to allow the illegal logging to continue.
“It’s an accusation from the suspects, who just confessed. It is not the truth. Our police officers are still investigating to find out the facts,” he said.
Agribusiness overtook mining as the industry most responsible for the murder of activists last year, according to Global Witness. The UK-based group recorded 197 deaths of defenders of land and environment in 2017.
With the Thomson Reuters Foundation