A Cambodian court on Monday convicted a logging company’s security chief for the killing of a military officer accused of murdering prominent local environmentalist Chut Wutty, in a case decried as unfair and unjust by the activist's family and rights groups.
The court decision marks the end of the investigations into the case of Chut Wutty, who was gunned down while investigating illegal logging in Mondul Seima district of southern Cambodia's Koh Kong province on April 26.
The court in Koh Kong on Monday sentenced security chief Rann Borath to two years in prison for the “unintentional murder” of military officer In Rattana, who the court said had fatally shot the forest activist.
But the court suspended Rann Borath’s sentence by 18 months, effectively allowing the security officer, who has already served nearly six months in jail, to walk out a free man by the first week of November if government prosecutors do not appeal the sentence.
'Can't take it'
Rann Borath was the chief of security of the Timber Green Logging Company, which runs timber operations in the area where Chut Wutty and In Rattana were found dead.
Conflicting accounts of their deaths given by military police sparked accusations of a government cover-up of Chut Wutty’s murder, which was the highest-profile death of a Cambodian activist in years.
Chut Wutty’s son, Chhoeuy Odomraksmey, said he believes the conclusion to the trial was unfair to his father and his family.
“I just cannot take it,” he told RFA’s Khmer service after the verdict announcement.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, said he was not surprised by the court’s decision to suspend Rann Borath’s sentence.
From the beginning, he said, the authorities had “intentionally” closed off examination into the activist’s death by placing the blame on a dead man.
“It was only because of strong public criticism that the government set up a committee to investigate the case,” Am Sam Ath told RFA.
In the verdict announcement, the judge said that In Rattana had shot and killed Chut Wutty.
Rann Borath tried to take away In Rattana’s gun to prevent further shooting, but accidentally set off the firearm and killed him in the process, the judge said.
The court had been expected to hold a hearing on both In Rattana’s and Chut Wutty’s killings earlier this month, but court officials abruptly dropped the hearing on the latter, saying the suspected murderer, In Rattana, was already dead and therefore the case was closed.
Chut Wutty’s wife, Sam Chanthy, said this month that the court had not conducted a thorough inquiry before closing the trial and that she believes there were others at Timber Green behind her husband’s death.
On the day he was found murdered, Chut Wutty had been leading two journalists to see what he believed were illegal logging activities near a Chinese-built dam in Koh Kong.
The activist had also been involved in organizing communities around Cambodia to protect forests from land grabs and illegal logging and had campaigned against the government's granting of land concessions in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Four months after Chut Wutty’s death, Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist who had exposed illegal logging and forest crimes involving local elites in Ratanakiri province, was found dead in the trunk of his car.
Authorities have arrested a military police officer and his wife as suspects in the case.
Reported by Touch Yuthea for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.