Authorities in Cambodia have arrested three former police and military personnel in connection with the weekend murder of a journalist who reports say had been investigating the illegal timber trade in Kratie province.
Taing Try, a reporter for Today newspaper, was found shot dead early on Sunday in Snuol district’s Khsoem commune, where he and five other journalists were believed to be looking into claims that a local warehouse was being used to store illegal timber.
Kratie province deputy police chief Oum Phy told reporters Monday that authorities had concluded their investigation after arresting three suspects allegedly linked to illegal logging.
“Three people were involved with the murder—one is the killer, one is an accomplice, and another one owns the gun,” he said.
“After our investigation, there are no more suspects.”
Oum Phy said the three suspects were “business partners,” identifying them as Ben Hieng, 31, chief of Sre Chhouk commune police in Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima district, Khim Pheakdey, 27, a military police officer in the capital Phnom Penh, and the suspected gunman, La Narong, 32, a soldier in Mondulkiri.
He added that police had confiscated the gun which was allegedly used to kill Taing Try.
The Cambodia Daily quoted Oum Phy as saying that the three men had confessed to the murder, but that their motives were still under investigation.
The three suspects are being held at the provincial police headquarters and will be sent to a provincial prison on Tuesday.
Today editor-in-chief and publisher Sok Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that Taing Try had received many threats in the past from illegal timber smugglers in the region, but police had failed to take any action to protect him.
A journalist who accompanied Taing Try to investigate a warehouse owned by the brother of deputy Snuol district military police chief Chhun Khoeun said the reporters were nearing the site early on Sunday when they heard that 20 oxcarts were transporting luxury wood there under the cover of night.
The warehouse was allegedly being used to store the wood while it was being transported through Kratie province between Mondulkiri and Kampong Cham provinces, he told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The journalists, traveling in three separate cars, observed the ox carts and decided to return home.
However, the car in which Taing Try was driving became stuck in the mud after the other two had already left, he said, adding that he was not made aware of the murder until later that day.
Taing Try was found with a single bullet wound to the forehead outside the door of his car.
The journalist said he was convinced that the passengers of a Lexus SUV, which was found flipped over about 200 meters (650 feet) away from the scene of Taing Try’s death with its license plates removed, had been responsible for the killing.
“I have received many threats and insults [working on this story],” he said.
“Those killers are very well known. One suspect was working in the district,” he said, without providing details on their identities.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted a police officer, who declined to give his name, suggesting that Taing Try may have been in business with his killer, though he did not provide evidence of the claim.
Taing Try faced charges in 2012 for allegedly extorting luxury wood from a man he accused of being involved in the illegal timber trade, though the charges were later dropped, local media reported.
The National Press Council of Cambodia, a coalition of 10 press associations, condemned the killing Monday.
“This is an act of brutality against the reporter,” the council said in a statement.
“The authorities must ensure that the killers are prosecuted.”
Hean Chheavkun, the provincial head of local rights group ADHOC, said that her organization had not yet concluded its investigation of the murder, but was meeting with the other reporters who had accompanied Taing Try the morning he was killed.
She called on authorities to provide better protection for journalists who are covering news and the staff of nongovernmental organizations in the province.
Illegal logging is rampant in Cambodia, and often occurs under the protection of government agencies or influential people, environmental groups have charged.
In April 2012, prominent environmentalist Chut Wutty was fatally shot in southwest Cambodia's Koh Kong province after taking two journalists to look at a logging camp there.
In September that year, another local journalist investigating illegal logging, Hang Serei Oudom, was killed in Ratanakiri province.
Reported by Leng Maly and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.