A Cambodian provincial court today dropped charges against a military police officer and his wife accused of murdering a reporter investigating the country’s illegal timber trade, drawing protests from the journalist’s wife and from human rights and environmental advocacy groups.
Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter for the Vorakchun Khmer newspaper, had been looking into claims of illegal logging and extortion when he went missing on Sept. 10, 2012. His battered body was found two days later in the trunk of his car.
Military police captain An Bunheng and his wife were taken into custody the next day after police and a court prosecutor said they had found evidence linking them to the crime at the couple’s restaurant in Cambodia’s northeastern Ratanakiri province.
After questioning three witnesses and reviewing written statements from another seven, the Ratanakiri Provincial Court dropped all charges against the pair, citing a lack of evidence sufficient to win a conviction against them.
Hang Serei Oudom’s last article before his death was published on Sept. 6, 2012 and accused the son of a local military police commander of involvement in illegal logging.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service today, Hang Serei Oudom’s wife Im Chanthy protested the court’s ruling, calling it “very unjust.”
“First the court says it has evidence, and now they claim they don’t,” Im Chanthy said. “Please help me. There is no law in Cambodia.”
Defense lawyer Heng Sotheara meanwhile applauded the verdict freeing his clients, while deputy prosecutor Chea Sopheak said he had not yet decided whether to appeal the court’s ruling.
Rights groups had called for a thorough investigation into Hang Serei Oudom’s death, noting that the journalist had written about influential people, including businessmen and provincial officials involved in the trafficking of luxury wood.
In a statement Wednesday, the Club of Cambodian Journalists condemned the court’s verdict and urged authorities to “reinvestigate the case in order to provide justice to the victim and his family.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) meanwhile noted that the Ratanakiri court had refused in initial proceedings last year to examine the link between Hang Serei Oudom’s death and his reporting on illegal logging.
And though the court’s investigation was reopened in April after briefly being closed, “no further evidence was collected,” CCHR said on Wednesday.
“The Cambodian justice system has yet again failed those who risk their lives to defend their rights and protect the country’s rapidly vanishing forests,” the London-based environmental advocacy group Global Witness said, calling the court’s ruling an example of Cambodia’s “shocking culture of impunity.”
Without the support of Cambodian authorities and the courts, “environmental defenders like Hang Serei Oudom will continue to be killed and some of Asia’s last remaining intact forests will be gone,” Global Witness said.
Reported by Ratha Visal for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.