Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sentenced a former border chief to life in prison and one military police officer to 30 years, while another received two years, for the murders of three forest conservationists who were on patrol in a wildlife sanctuary in Mondulkiri province last year.
On January 30, 2018, forest ranger Tern Soknai, National Military Police officer Sek Vathana and Wildlife Conservation Society official Thol Kna were gunned down during a routine patrol in O’ Raing district’s Pouyam village.
The court tried four accused over the killings last month, including former chief of O’Rolear border post Phal Penh and former military officers Kert Veha, Kert Veta and Chheang Vannith.
During the trial, Mr Penh confessed to the murders while claiming he shot down the victims because they reneged on a deal to accept bribes to free illegal loggers.
Presiding Judge Sor Sota yesterday sentenced Mr Penh to life in prison, while Mr Veha received 30 years and Mr Vannith two years.
The fourth accused, Mr Veta, was found not guilty and will be freed from jail today.
“Based on the evidence and their confessions during the trial, the judges’ council finds them guilty,” Judge Sota said. “Therefore, the court has decided to convict and sentence the accused Phal Penh, the mastermind behind the murders, to a life sentence.”
“The court also orders Phal Penh and Kert Veha to pay 40 million riels [about $10,000] to each of the victims’ families,” he added. “It also finds the accused Kert Veta not guilty in the case and orders his immediate release from prison.”
Judge Sota noted that Mr Penh was charged with premeditated murder and Mr Veha with being an accomplice to premeditated murder.
Mr Veta was charged with providing assistance to a perpetrator and hiding evidence, while Mr Vannith was accused of destruction of evidence.
Deputy prosecutor Long Cheab said that on January 18 last year, four Vietnamese loggers on four motorbikes entered the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary to cut trees.
He said that to allow the four Vietnamese loggers to illegally log trees, Mr Penh and Mr Veha received a bribe of about $430. Mr Cheab noted that the two promised to protect the Vietnamese from crackdowns by other authorities.
He said that at about 11am on January 30, the three victims were on patrol in the protected forest and saw the four Vietnamese loggers cutting trees. They arrested the four men and seized their equipment.
Mr Cheab noted that one of the men phoned Mr Penh for assistance.
He said Mr Penh and Mr Veha, both of whom were armed with AK-47 rifles, drove their motorbikes to the spot where the Vietnamese were being held.
“After they arrived, Mr Phen walked towards Mr Soknai who was sitting on a motorbike and was also carrying an AK-47 rifle,” Mr Cheab noted. “Mr Penh then fired five shots at Mr Soknai, killing him instantly.”
“After shooting Mr Soknai, Mr Penh ordered Mr Veha to seize the victim’s gun and hide it before he drove his motorbike to look for Mr Vathana and Mr Kna,” he added.
Mr Cheab said that Mr Penh then saw the two victims walking about 60 metres away from where Mr Soknai had been and shot them dead. He said that after the killings, Mr Penh and Mr Veha alerted Mr Veta who advised them to flee.
Mr Cheab noted that on January 31 last year, Mr Veha was arrested when he turned himself in at the O’ Raing district military police post.
He said based on his confession, Mr Penh was arrested on February 1 in Tboung Khmum province’s Memot district.
Mr Cheab added that the next day, based on Mr Penh’s confession, military police arrested Mr Veta and Mr Vannith who were at the military platoon base.
Defence lawyer Seng Singheng yesterday lauded the court’s decision to free Mr Veta, but believed that the jail terms against Mr Penh and Mr Veha were too high.
“I am pleased the court has dropped charges against my client Mr Veta and released him from prison because he is innocent,” he said. “He was not involved in Mr Penh’s and Mr Veha’s activities. That was justice for him.”
“But I am not happy with the punishment of Mr Penh because the sentence is very heavy,” he added. “My client Mr Penh did not plan to kill the three victims and on the day of murders he shot them after he met them in the forest and became angry because they detained the Vietnamese.”
“Mr Penh should have been charged with murder and sentenced to a maximum of 15 years instead of premeditated murder which carries a life sentence,” he noted.
Kuy Veasna, Mr Veha’s lawyer, yesterday said the punishment meted out to his client was unjust. He added that he will consult with Mr Veha over the possibility of appealing the ruling to the Appeal Court.
Brigadier General On Bunnyrith, Mondulkiri provincial deputy police chief, yesterday confirmed that Mr Veta will be released from prison today, noting that the delay is a documentation process.
“He will be released after the provincial prison officer receives his release warrant from Phnom Penh Municipal Court,” he said.
During their trial last month, Mr Penh said he killed the victims because they lied to him after agreeing to free the loggers and relinquish their equipment in exchange for half of the $430 bribe.
“I shot them because I was angry with them for not keeping their promise. They agreed to receive five million Vietnamese dong [about $200] from me in exchange for freeing the Vietnamese loggers and their equipment,” Mr Penh said. “They later reported [the crimes] to the provincial court prosecutor.”
“At first, I shot Mr Soknai five times in the chest. He died at the scene. I shot him first because he tried to shoot me when I first approached him on a road in the forest,” he added. “After shooting Mr Soknai, I drove my motorbike and shot Mr Vathana three times in his stomach. I then shot Mr Kna.”
Mr Penh said after killing the victims, he fled with Mr Veha. He said the motorbikes ran out of fuel, forcing them to abandon their vehicles and hide within the forest before they were arrested days later.
The three others denied being involved in the shootings and asked the court to drop the charges and release them from pre-trial detention.
Mr Veha told the court that he accompanied Mr Penh, but did not shoot any of the victims.
“I did not fire a single bullet or killed the victims that day,” he said. “I tried to stop Mr Penh from shooting the victims, but he was so angry that I could not stop him.”
“I was shocked to see Mr Soknai terribly die in front of me,” Mr Veha added. “Mr Penh ordered me to seize Mr Soknai’s weapon and keep it for him.”
Mr Veta told the court that after Mr Penh and Mr Veha killed the victims, he had alerted police about the shootings.