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Cambodia killing of anti-logging crusader stirs up suspicions

June 1, 2012 |  4:30 am

When Chut Wutty was killed in the forest, his death renewed suspicions that the Cambodian government has allowed or abetted illegal logging and protected companies instead of its people

It wasn't surprising that someone might want to put a stop to Chut Wutty. The Cambodian crusader was a thorn in the side of government officials who he suspected of looking the other way at illegal logging.

He could rattle off forestry codes to the letter, drove a red Land Cruiser that everyone could see coming, dressed like a Cambodian Indiana Jones. When he found trees that had been illegally felled, he burned them. When he found the chainsaws that were used to do it, he took them.

"It's illegal, what people are doing in the forest," he told Los Angeles photographer Mathieu Young as they drove through the forest one day, months before his murky death. "But chainsaws are louder than the law."

More than a fifth of Cambodian land is held by companies under leases for agriculture or mining, according to the human rights group Licadho. Those eager to make money from rosewood and other prized timber have strayed over the legally granted tracts, Cambodian activists say. A single cubic meter of rosewood can fetch thousands of dollars -- a fortune in a country where average incomes fall around $800 a year -- before being crafted into luxury furniture or guitars.

"It's a temptation for anyone to make a buck," including people simply coming out from cities with chainsaws, said Suwanna Gauntlett, chief executive of Wildlife Alliance, an environmental group contracted by Cambodia to assist in monitoring the Southern Cardamom mountains.

The Cambodian government says it is combating the unlawful trade, which damages forests and impoverishes other Cambodians who rely on the forests for their livelihoods. It recently said it would order a pause in granting land to companies, and strip those involved in illegal logging or other violations of their tracts. Gauntlett says the government has eagerly partnered with Wildlife Alliance to stop the crime.

But when Chut Wutty was killed in the forest, his death only renewed suspicions that the government has allowed or abetted illegal logging and protected companies instead of its people. In one especially damning report five years ago, the Global Witness watchdog group said the military and other government authorities were deep into the illicit trade, claims that Cambodia has vehemently denied.

His killing has also spotlighted an ugly and renewed pattern over the last year: that Cambodians who speak up have been answered with gunfire. Surya Subedi, the U.N. human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, said the death was part of "a worrying trend" of human rights activists being shot at, listing four recent incidents.

Less than three weeks after Chut Wutty was killed, a teenage girl was shot and killed as her village was reportedly stormed by military police in a purported attempt to stop a secession plot. Villagers claim they were targeted because of their disputes with an agribusiness company over their land.

"It is time for Cambodian armed officials to think and think and think again and again before raising guns to shoot at our own blood, own people," government spokesman Ek Tha wrote in a statement after the teen was shot, imploring protesters and the military to avoid violence.

But the killings have continued. "Is the government just paying lip service -- or is the government unable to stop it?" asked Amnesty International researcher Rupert Abbott.

Chut Wutty was shot dead in late April, after his car was stopped on a dirt road in the woods. The land where he was shot was near an area being cleared for a hydro-electric power reservoir by the Timbergreen logging company, a Cambodian-registered firm that denies any involvement in illegal logging.

Exactly what happened that day is unclear. Military police first said one of their officers had shot Chut Wutty, then killed himself -- a story that drew scorn when it was learned the officer had been shot twice in the stomach and chest. It was one of three different explanations in the first few days after the crime, according to the Phnom Penh Post, including claims that a ricocheting bullet or Chut Wutty himself had killed the policeman. 

The government then created an investigation committee, which swiftly concluded that the policeman shot Chut Wutty over "a personal dispute." A third man -- a Timbergreen security guard -- tried to step in to disarm the policeman and ended up accidentally shooting and killing him, officials said.

Two journalists from the nonprofit Cambodia Daily newspaper were with Chut Wutty that day, but have told the media they didn't see who fired. One declined to be interviewed; the other could not be reached.

Cambodian authorities say the military policeman acted alone, but activists have demanded to know who gave the order to stop his car in the first place. The activists have also pushed to get the photos in his camera; police reportedly demanded the memory card after Chut Wutty snapped photos of vines cut down in the forest. They say the investigation was cursory, with no autopsy or ballistics test.

And they've questioned why the military police, a branch of the armed forces charged with maintaining public order in the country, were there at all. The Cambodian government formally nurtured ties between the military and private companies two years ago, encouraging the firms to officially sponsor military units with food and money. Some activists saw it as a sign of something more sinister.

"Soldiers should not be protecting the interests of companies," said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho. "They're supposed to be protecting the people."

Investigative committee spokesman Tith Sothea repeatedly hung up on calls and did not respond to emailed questions about the investigation and the activists' claims. Ek Tha said he could not respond to the questions. The Cambodian ambassador in Washington declined to comment.

As they drove back from the forests in Sandan District one February day, Chut Wutty got a call on his cellphone, Young, the photographer, recounted. The activist listened for half a minute, then launched into a long and forceful response in Khmer. Then he hung up.

"That was the deputy governor calling," Young remembered Chut Wutty telling him when he asked what had happened. "He was mad that I confiscated his chainsaw."

Young said that when he asked what the activist had answered, Chut Wutty said calmly, "I explained the law to him."

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Chut Wutty burns wood believed to be felled by illegal loggers while leading a group of activists in the Prey Lang forest in February. Credit: Mathieu Young

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