Rights groups have called for further investigation into the death of a prominent environmental activist in Cambodia, who was shot and killed in the country’s southwest last week as he was looking into illegal logging.
Chut Wutty, the director of environmental watchdog Natural Resource Protection Group, died on April 26th during a confrontation with military police in the southwestern province of Koh Kong.
The activist, who was in his forties, was reportedly accompanying two journalists from the English-language newspaper The Cambodia Daily in order to document illegal logging, when the incident occurred.
A military police officer, In Rattana, was also shot and killed during the altercation, but the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear.
The Cambodia Daily reported on Saturday that neither journalist had seen who fired the shots. It also stated that military police were engaged in a dispute with Chut Wutty, and had confiscated cameras belonging to the activist and the journalists.
Local media reported military police officials as saying that In Rattana had shot himself twice in the torso after shooting Chut Wutty, an account some observers have questioned. A national military police spokesperson told DW that a prosecutor in Koh Kong was continuing to investigate the case.
A 2007 report by London-based environmental watchdog Global Witness stated that illegal logging was causing severe damage to Cambodia's forests and that the country's army, military police and police, along with some government officials, were complicit in the activity.
Chut Wutty was a staunch critic of illegal logging and had campaigned for years against the depletion of Cambodia's forests.
Global Witness said in a statement on Thursday that the dangers faced by activists working on land and forest protection in Cambodia were "severe."
Illegal logging and land grabbing is impoverishing ordinary Cambodians
"Chut Wutty was one of the few remaining Cambodian activists willing to speak out against the rapid escalation of illegal logging and land grabbing which is impoverishing ordinary Cambodians," Global Witness director Patrick Alley said in the statement.
For his part, Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia, told DW that Chut Wutty's death raised the issue of why increasing violence was being used against protestors in Cambodia.
"Questions are being asked [as] to whether this government in Phnom Penh is actually able to guarantee the safety of its people throughout the country," he said.
“Whose interests were [the military police officers] looking after?” Abbott added. "Why is it they seized the cameras? What interests were so important to them that it could have led to this activist being shot?"
Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that "well-connected businesspeople" often paid police for protection, posing greater risks for activists trying to document illegal logging.
Activists say there is corruption involved in the logging industry
"It is a lucrative trade," he pointed out. "In these situations, generally, where there's military police involved … that danger is exponential."
Ou Virak added that Chut Wutty was "one of the bravest men" he knew, and said the families of both men deserved a "thorough investigation" into their deaths.
A spokesperson for Cambodia's Council of Ministers, Ek Tha, said that the government wanted to see a proper investigation into the case and would leave it to the "competent authorities."
"We have courts, prosecutors, judges, investigators … in place so let them do their job," he said.
Author: Mary Kozlovski
Editor: Anne Thomas