Cambodian authorities on Thursday detained two suspects linked to the slaying of a journalist investigating claims of illegal logging amid calls by an international press watchdog to determine whether the murder was connected to his coverage of environmental concerns.
Military officer An Bunheng and his wife, known by her nickname "Vy," were taken into custody after police and a court prosecutor said they had found evidence at the couple’s restaurant in northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province—the last known whereabouts of victim Hang Serei Oudom before he went missing on Monday.
On Wednesday, authorities found Oudom dead in the trunk of his car, which was parked in a cashew nut plantation in the north of the province about a week after he had published an article accusing a local military police officer of extorting money from an illegal logger in the area.
Police said the journalist had apparently died from a series of axe blows to the head.
Among the evidence collected by authorities on Thursday from the restaurant were a pair of Oudom’s shoes abandoned about 65 feet (about 20 meters) from the establishment, an assortment of knives, and “other” evidence.
Provincial Deputy Prosecutor Chea Sopheak, who is leading the investigation, refused to comment on his initial findings.
“The investigation is confidential,” he told RFA’s Khmer service.
Provincial Military Police Chief Kem Raksmey said he had sent An Bunheng, who is an officer under his command, to the authorities for questioning, but refused to comment further.
An Bunheng and his wife have denied accusations of their involvement in Oudom’s death, but police say they are being held for further questioning.
The article Oudom had written alleged that Chief Raksmey’s son, Keng Sanglao, was the military police officer behind the extortion scandal.
Published a week before his murder in the Virakchum Khmer Daily newspaper, the report said that Sanglao stopped a truck loaded with illegal timber on Sept. 3, but had allowed the driver to go free after confiscating the cargo and taking an unspecified amount of money.
It also accused the officer of using military vehicles to transport illegal timber.
Call for thorough probe
The announcement of the suspects’ detention came amidst a call from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) for a “thorough investigation” into Oudom’s murder.
In a statement issued Thursday, RSF urged police to “give priority to the probability that it was linked to his coverage of illegal logging and other environmental issues.”
The group noted that Hang Serei Oudom wrote about “rich and influential people,” including businessmen and provincial officials involved in the trafficking of luxury wood in Ratanakiri, and that his colleagues had told him “they were concerned for his safety” in the days preceding his disappearance.
“Cambodian journalists, bloggers and cyber-activists who draw attention to environmental problems, especially deforestation, are frequently targeted by the people they try to expose,” the statement said.
RSF ranked Cambodia 117th out of 179 countries in its most recent annual press freedom index.
In April, an environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot and killed while he accompanied two reporters from the Cambodia Daily to investigate illegal logging claims in a protected forest region.
A security guard from a logging company was charged in connection with the murder, but conflicting accounts given by the authorities about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death prompted calls from rights groups for a thorough investigation.
Reported by Sok Ratha for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.