Cambodia's Pursat forest crime ‘mastermind’ identified, on the run

A seized cut-down truck used by loggers, along with some of the illegally felled timber. - Photo: The Phnom Penh Post/ANN

PHNOM PENH: Authorities are hunting for the alleged mastermind behind serious forestry crimes in Pursat province. Koh Sophy, also known as Ta Hoy, has been ordered to appear at the provincial court for questioning.

He was summoned to answer allegations that for years, he has colluded with officials to fell timber illegally, according to Pursat provincial governor Khoy Rida.

The court summons followed a series of investigations into large-scale forest crimes inside the Oral Wildlife Sanctuary in Pursat’s Phnom Kravanh district and other nearby areas by a provincial task force.

The crackdown followed a request for intervention by the Nature Lovers Youth Association.

At least 40 cubic metres of milled timber were confiscated during the operation.

“We found timber hidden in the forest. We are still collecting evidence, but the court has issued a summons, ordering [Ta Hoy] to appear for questions on charges made by the provincial forestry administration,” said the governor.

“We have been working to identify the person responsible for these forest crimes for years. For him to be able to get away with them, he must have colluded with some officials, although we have not yet identified them.

"We summoned Ta Hoy first, but he has fled: perhaps he did not receive the summons. He had already employed a lawyer, so he must have expected legal action,” he added.

Tan Kimsour, head of the youth association, said he was tipped off about the illegal transportation of timber by three trucks in the Damnak Trayeung area in Pro Ngel commune, Phnom Kravanh district on May 27.

His team followed up and went to inspect the site the following day, along with two environmental rangers.

They did not see any suspects, but found a lot of evidence of illegal logging, including felled trees and milled timber, totalling about 30 cubic metres.

In addition, they also discovered many temporary shelters that were used by the loggers, as well as chainsaws and other machinery.

“In the years I have been working to protect the forests, I have never seen such a huge tragedy. I really feel sorry for the forest in that area.

"From one mountain to the next, there are a lot of fallen logs and the tracks made by Ta Hoy’s trucks,” said Kimsour.

The patrol returned from the forest the same day and immediately called the governor for additional support.

On May 31, governor Rida led a 30-strong joint task of police, military police and forest rangers to the base of the mountain, where they linked with Kimsour's team.

The governor instructed the task force to begin patrolling the forest immediately.

By following the tracks left by the trucks, the patrolling task force was able to discover one of the ramshackle cut-down trucks used by the loggers concealed in the brush.

Lacking the means to seize the vehicle or tow it out of the forest, they collected firewood and burned it, to ensure the perpetrators could not return and reclaim the vehicle.

The joint task force spent a total of six days and nights exploring the forest and mountains to ensure that a thorough search was conducted.

Kimsour explained that he spent two additional days asking locals in the area about the perpetrators and looking for where the remaining timber trucks might be stored.

“Every mountain is littered with the evidence that large trees have been felled.

"This is the work of Ta Hoy, but I believe that he could not have committed these crimes on this scale without conspiring with a number of local officials,” he said.

“We have worked hard for years to end these crimes. Any officials who were involved in a conspiracy to allow these forestry crimes to take place must be held accountable before the law. I hope there will be justice for the forest in this area,” he added.

The provincial governor explained that he has regularly led task forces to crack down on illegal logging, but those who were involved were arrogant and continued to commit the same crimes.

He explained that the crimes in the Oral sanctuary could not have been carried out without the collusion of people in the area.

He noted that while some timbers were transported on motorbikes or home-made trucks, suggesting small-scale family activities, the total amount of timber logged and removed was on a grand scale.

“This operation employed a wide range of transport methods. Trucks were concealed in the forest, but we found at least one of them and destroyed it,” he said.

“Ta Hoy is the mastermind behind this, but some officials must have colluded with him. We will wait to see the courts investigate them one by one,” he added.

Rida explained that the crackdown was being carried out carefully, to ensure legal procedures are followed, as if the group was allowed to continue, it would not only damage natural resources but challenge the authorities' leadership.

He expressed his happiness at the identification of the target, noting that his gang had caused a lot of problems and made others unhappy, while the provincial authorities are doing all they can to resolve any issues for the 500,000 people of the province.

“[Ta Hoy] is the biggest target in the province, and I have been informed that he has committed similar offences in other provinces.

"The courts have ruled that his property was obtained from deforestation, a form of money laundering. Wait and see, [we] will not allow them to destroy the nation... That is a forest crime,” he said.

Kheang Somony, director of the Administrative Secretariat of Pursat Provincial Court, claimed that he was unaware of the case, and was unable to talk as he was attending a workshop in Phnom Penh.

Phan Sokunthong, spokeswoman for the provincial prosecutor, could not be reached for comment.

It is worth noting that provincial police issued a June 5 notice which rejected the allegations of forest crimes that had been reported in local media.

The letter stated that the provincial police’s Quick Reaction Team had investigated the allegations and found Ta Hoy and another individual known as Mao.

“The two individuals rejected the allegations in the media reports and requested that police render justice for them,” the letter read, adding that the team inspected Ta Hoy’s plantation but did not find any timber. - The Phnom Penh Post/ANN

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Cambodia , Pursat , forest crime , mastermind , identified , run


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