The killing of Cambodian anti-logging activist Chut Wutty is shrouded in mystery amid contradictory statements by officials about the circumstances in which he was shot by a military officer who was himself found dead.
Amid the confusion, rights groups called Friday for a thorough probe into the incident which occurred when Chut Wutty was leading two journalists from a local newspaper to show them what he thought were illegal logging activities in Cambodia's southwestern Koh Kong province.
The military police officer who allegedly shot him, In Rattana, died in the shootout at a checkpoint guarding the logging site near a Chinese-built dam in Modul Seima district, officials said.
Officials said In Rattana had committed suicide on seeing Chut Wutty dead.
“Other military personnel were apparently present during the shootings, but the details of the incident remain cloudy,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“There must be accountability in this case, with an immediate and proper investigation into what happened,” said Rupert Abbott, an Amnesty International researcher on Cambodia.
Cambodian Ministry of the Interior Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Friday that the ministry’s preliminary findings showed that the military police officer “shot Chut Wutty and then killed himself.”
“Chut Wutty also had a gun, but it was in his car and not loaded,” he said.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said that In Rattana committed suicide by shooting himself twice, in the stomach and chest, after killing Chut Wutty.
“It is impossible for someone to shoot himself twice to commit suicide. Once is enough. Even in Hollywood [they] would never do that,” said outspoken opposition legislator Son Chhay from the Sam Rainsy Party.
A day earlier, in a clear contradiction, Kheng Tito had said that the officer was killed by his own bullet that ricocheted off of Chut Wutty’s car and hit him.
In another twist, the Associated Press news agency quoted Kheng Tito as saying that Chut Wutty had fatally shot the military police officer.
Cambodian human rights watchdog LICADHO said the authorities needed to carry out a “thorough and impartial investigation” as a result of the contradictory statements.
The two journalists from the Cambodia Daily who were traveling with Chut Wutty have not made any public statements about the incident.
Military Police Chief of Koh Kong province General Thong Narong said Friday that the investigation “is not finished yet.”
“The prosecutor is leading this investigation,” he said.
Chut Wutty was president of Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group, whose activists had been conducting constant "patrols" in the heart of the Prey Lang forest to check illegal logging and other activities in a bid to protect the sprawling 3,600-square kilometer (1,400-square mile) forest area.
Son Chhay said he had traveled to Koh Kong province to investigate the environmental impact of a hydropower dam that a Chinese company is building in the forest and that he had spoken to Chut Wutty on the issue.
“He told me that he was working actively in the area to encourage people to stand up and protest about the cutting of trees by military and companies.”
“He advised me not to go there because it is very dangerous,” he said, adding that Chut Wutty had warned him about the military police in the area.
“He told me there are three military checkpoints and the second one has a hidden stash of logs,” Son Chhay said.
Chut Wutty, who left a wife and two children, was the most prominent Cambodian activist to meet a violent death since labor activist Chea Vichea, who was assassinated in 2004.
Rung Chhun, president of the Cambodia Independent Teachers Association, said that Chut Wutty’s case highlights the dangers many activists face when speaking out in the country.
“We notice that those who actively stand up to protect the interests of the nation are always facing death and punishment,” he said.
“We need to end the impunity.”
Reported by Sonorng Khe and Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.