By Marta Kasztelan

The provincial court in Banlung, in Ratanakiri province in Cambodia, handed down the long-awaited judgment Wednesday in the murder trial of Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter for the Khmer-language Virakchun Khmer Daily newspaper who was slain while investigating illegal logging.

The court decided that there wass not enough evidence to link the accused Ratanakiri military police officer An Bunheng and his wife Sim Vy to the gruesome murder of the journalist and ordered their release.

Oudom, who was known for investigating illegal logging in the province, was found dead in his car on 11 September 2011 with axe wounds in his head less than a week after exposing an alleged military connection to the illicit timber trade in the area.  A few days earlier his wife reported that he has gone missing after he failed to return home from a meeting.

Im Chanthy, widow of Hang Serei Oudom, with six months-old daughter. Pic: Marta Kasztelan.

The journalist’s widow, Im Chanthy, said the judgment proved there is no justice in the Southeast Asian country. As well as hearing a “guilty verdict“, Chanthy hoped the court would award her monetary compensation for the death of her husband, allowing her to better fend for her children. She currently lives with her parents in Banlung and works on a construction site to sustain herself and her two daughters, aged two years and six months.

Her mother, Mon Sovann, who was also present at the verdict, complained that the rich and powerful in Cambodia never suffer consequences of their crimes.

“There is so much corruption here that people who have money can do anything they want. When you are poor, like our family, you are powerless,“ she said.

A lawyer for local rights group Adhoc, Hok Phalla, echoed her sentiment. Phalla questioned the independence of the court and said the verdict was “unjust“.

“A lot of wealthy men are behind the defendants, including the judges in this court. And they all have an interest in seeing them walk free,“ he said.

Chhay Thy, Ratanakiri provincial coordinator for Adhoc, said that the court failed to properly investigate the circumstances of the reporter‘s death.

“We know that one of the accused, Mr. An Bunheng, called Mr. Oudon on the day of his murder and requested that they meet. The following day Mr. Oudon was found dead in his car. This connection was never properly investigated.“

The defense lawyer for the accused, Tep Monicheat, said the prosecution never had a case against his clients and hence he was not surprised with the court’s decision.

Although Cambodia’s forests are protected under the Forestry Law and the authorities introduced a partial ban on timber exports in 2006, rights groups claim illegal logging is rife across the country. Only last week the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community and Cambodian Youth Network raised concerns over a significant increase in illegal deforestation.

Many allege that authorities turn a blind eye to illegal logging and land grabs, which often go hand in hand, because officials in the military, police or the royal government are too often involved in questionable but lucrative deals with companies or influential businessmen.

In its latest report on illegal logging and the rubber trade in Cambodia, human rights watchdog Global Witness alleged that most of the illicit tree falling is taking place on economic land concessions, which are used by many companies as a cover for clear-cutting of large swaths of forest. Government’s own statistics confirm that the leading cause of forest cover decline is attributed to the granting of economic land concessions.

Hang Serei Oudom is not the only person to pay with his life for investigating the illegal timber trade. In April 2012, environmental activist Chat Vutty was shot dead by the Military Police while investigating illegal logging and land seizures in the Koh Kong province.

Being a journalist or human rights defender in Cambodia is becoming increasingly dangerous. According to a report by Adhoc, in 2012, 232 people were arrested in relation to land issues, marking a 144 per cent increase from 2011.

This worrying trend was recently highlighted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, professor Surya Subedi, following his May 2013 visit to the country.

“I… note the continuing pattern of criminalisation of land activists. A number of cases involving violence and detention have been brought to my attention,“ he said in a statement.