Two environmental officials working for an international conservation NGO in Battambang province’s Samlot district were detained and questioned over shooting at a tractor transporting firewood in the community forest, police said.
Three environmental officials and a police officer employed by the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation went to the forested area on Friday after hearing that people were cutting down trees in the community forest, but when they arrived they saw no trees being felled, according to police.
They only saw a man transporting what a commune police chief said was firewood. Keo Vibol, Sung commune police chief, identified the three environmental officials as Sorn Vannath, a team leader, Soy Khoeut and Men Sokhoeun, while the MJP police officer was identified as Bun Tha.
Cheth Vanny, chief of the provincial serious crime bureau, said that after their questioning on Saturday, two of them – Mr Tha and Mr Khoeut – were found to be involved in the shooting and police were building up evidence against the two who were let go.
“We arrested two people among the four after receiving an order from the provincial police chief and the prosecutor. We are questioning them right now to collect more evidence and then they’ll likely be sent to the court,” Mr Vanny said.
He added that Mr Tha and Mr Khoeut were being detained for further questioning while the other two were released.
Mr Vibol said the four officers did not find the people cutting down trees, but they encountered Duch Thy, 56, who was carrying firewood on his tractor. They attempted to stop his vehicle, but he refused to do so.
“Actually, he shot five times with his AK-47 rifle. First, he shot one bullet into the air to stop the tractor, but the driver did not pull over,” he said.
“The tractor was sliding down a sloped road when they tried to stop him and the brakes did not work well because the tractor was old. The driver was shocked and then swerved and hit a tree,” Mr Vibol added.
“After that, the driver and the MJP environmental officers negotiated. The driver told us that those officers wanted to bring his tractor and chainsaw to their office so the driver started his engine and left.”
Mr Tha then grabbed the AK-47 rifle from Mr Khoeut and shot at the tractor’s wheels, according to Mr Vibol, who said the gun belonged to another police officer working for MJP who was not at the scene.
Bou Sina, director of MJP, could not be reached for comment while an administration officer declined to comment.
However, Mr Sina told local media that the shooting occurred because the driver refused to pull over his vehicle.
Pen Bonnar, a community programme officer at human rights group Adhoc, said it was right to crack down on forestry crimes, but a rifle should not have been used against a civilian.
“I think they should not have used a weapon to crack down on a civilian without a weapon. He was carrying firewood. If we compared this case to forestry crimes committed by tycoons, no officers would dare to do anything against them,” he said.