The government must end impunity and find genuine justice for Chut Wutty, who was shot dead while investigating illegal logging in 2012, civil society said Monday, as Facebook profile images were changed to honor the popular environmental activist on the ninth anniversary of his death.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights launched a campaign asking what people would like to say to Chut Wutty, a fearless conservationist who frequently riled authorities for years up until he was killed a by a military police officer while traveling with Cambodia Daily reporters in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province.
One Facebook user responded with the message: “I placed your name on a rock stating that Cambodian children will never forget you.”
Observers have long cast doubt over the government’s version of events, which states that In Rattana accidentally shot Chut Wutty before being shot himself during a tussle over the murder weapon, at a checkpoint where military police and soldiers had confiscated cameras from Wutty and the reporters.
Civil society groups called once more for a new investigation into the deaths ahead of the anniversary, but government figures told CamboJA that there was no evidence to justify such a move.
“Through our campaign for Chut Wutty, we hope to keep him in our collective consciousness, but also convey our appreciation and respect for all other environmental activists who risk their lives for the greater good of the Cambodian people,” CCHR executive director Chak Sopheap said.
As Cambodia’s trees continue to be cut down, its coasts eroded and lakes filled in, environmental activists who have followed in Chut Wutty’s footsteps continue to face judicial harassment, she said.
“The work that activists undertake should be praised rather than hampered, and their voices should be listened to rather than silenced.”
About six months after Chut Wutty was killed, Rann Boroth, a private security guard for the Timber Green logging company who had been with military police and soldiers that detained the environmentalist, was sentenced to two years in prison for the killings.
However, Koh Kong provincial court judge Khem Sophary immediately suspended the majority of the sentence with no explanation and the convicted killer was set free.
Wutty’s son, Chheuy Odom Reaksmey, who now lives in the United States, said that he has new evidence and 70,000 signatures to present to the United Nations’ human rights office and the International Criminal Court.
“I still do not accept the justice brought by Koh Kong court,” he said. “I think that there is someone behind an order to kill him.”
He called on the government to reveal which high-ranking officials are involved in that case and appealed to the international community to help end impunity in Cambodia.
“I don’t have faith that the current government can find who are the real murderers, because people are close with government leaders,” he said.
Authorities have rejected criticism of the investigation into the incident that led to Chut Wutty’s death and until this day stand by the verdict, claiming that any criticism was part of a political agenda to destabilize Cambodia.
“If they still don’t accept this decision, they can find new evidence to show that what police found is incorrect,” Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told CamboJA, urging family members to come forward with and make a complaint.
“They don’t have any evidence; they just accused and doubt because they can’t accept the situation.”
Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, could not be reached for comment, while the National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun, declined to comment.
A prominent environmental campaigner, Chut Wutty had done stints at Global Witness and Conservation International, but it was his role as founder of the Natural Resources Protection Group that garnered him the most attention–and ire.
He pushed for citizen-centered activism and encouraged patrols where hundreds of villagers confiscated saws, detained loggers, and sent hundreds of cubic meters of illegally logged timber up in flames.
According to estimates from the advocacy group Global Forest Watch, in the years from 2001-18, Cambodia lost 557,000 hectares of tree cover in protected areas, representing a 11.7% loss of the total protected area and some of the world’s highest deforestation rates.
Global forest watchers have noted an uptick in deforestation in the protected Prey Lang forest during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Cambodia’s environment ministry has written off the reports as false.
“Natural resources in Cambodia are not bad like a small group of political activists often exaggerated by holding campaigns, which are the business of civil society groups in order to raise funds,” said Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra,
However, Chut Wutty’s followers will continue their work in homage to the fallen hero, said environmental activist Heng Sros.
“We are Khmer, we are proud that Mr. Chut Wutty sacrificed his life to protect natural resources,” he said, noting that illegal logging is rampant, including in protected Prey Lang.
“We called on the government to not just lock down people in Phnom Penh, but lock down timber transporting.”