Cambodia military policeman acquitted of reporter murder

PHNOM PENH - A Cambodian court acquitted a military policeman Wednesday over the brutal killing of a journalist who exposed illegal logging, a lawyer said, as the reporter's family vowed to keep fighting for justice.

Ean Bunheng and his wife were arrested in September last year, days after the body of Hang Serei Oudom, a reporter at local-language Vorakchun Khmer Daily, was found in the boot of his own car in northern Ratanakiri Province.

Police at the time said he appeared to have suffered axe blows to the head. "The court dropped the charges against both my clients because there is no evidence," said defence lawyer Tep Monicheat. Court officials could not be reached for comment.

The accused pair lived at a karaoke parlour where the reporter was last seen. Nobody else has been arrested over his death.

Oudom's wife Im Chanty told AFP that she could not accept the ruling, which can be appealed at the prosecution's request within 15 days.

"The court's decision is very unjust," she told AFP. "I will ask rights activists to help me fight the case."

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, told AFP that the ruling reflected the "impunity" in the country.

Environmental activists regularly face threats in Cambodia, where land grabbing has become a major source of tension.

In his final article, on September 6, Oudom accused the military policeman son of a senior provincial official of smuggling logs in military-plated vehicles and extorting money from people who were legally transporting wood.

Fellow reporters had expressed fears for Oudom's safety because of his exposes, activists said.

Oudom's killing came less than six months after prominent environmentalist Chhut Vuthy was shot dead by a military policeman after he refused to hand over pictures showing logging in the southwestern Koh Kong Province.

The officer who shot Vuthy was then himself accidentally killed with his own weapon when a private security guard tried to disarm him, according to a government probe.

In its haste to develop the impoverished nation, the Cambodian government has been criticised for allowing well-connected firms to clear hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest land - including in protected zones - for everything from rubber and sugar cane plantations to hydropower dams.

Rampant illegal logging contributed to a sharp drop in Cambodia's forest cover from 73 per cent in 1990 to 57 per cent in 2010, according to the United Nations.