(PHNOM PENH, Cambodia) — Human rights and environmental groups on Friday denounced the shooting death of a prominent Cambodian environmental activist by military police who had confronted him while he was investigating illegal logging.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said National Resources Protection Group director Chut Wutty was shot Thursday in a clash at a checkpoint in Koh Kong province. He said the activist fatally shot a military police officer in the confrontation, and that it was unclear what triggered the violence or who shot first.
Patrick Alley, director of the London-based environmental activist group Global Witness, said the shooting exposed the risks environmental activists in Cambodia face "in the most shocking and tragic manner."
In Kong Chet, of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said the confrontation occurred when Chut Wutty refused to hand over a memory card containing photos taken in a nearby forest that is supposed to be protected but is notorious for illegal logging.
He said the activist had taken two journalists from The Cambodia Daily newspaper to see large-scale forest destruction and illegal rosewood smuggling, and that the confrontation occurred as the three were leaving. The journalists were later taken to a military police office for questioning, In Kong Chet said.
Amnesty International identified the journalists as Cambodian Phorn Bopha and Olesia Plokhii, a Canadian national, and said they were later released, but Kheng Tito said Friday that the two were still being questioned.
Amnesty International said Chut Wutty had received threats because of his activities, and called for "an immediate and proper investigation into what happened."
Alley said in a statement that 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 and destroying the country's rich natural heritage."
"The national government and international donor countries must publicly condemn his murder and take swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice," he said.
Global Witness and other groups claim illegal logging in Cambodia often occurs under the protection of government agencies or important persons. In recent years, protests against land grabs by rich and influential people have been suppressed by deadly force.
"What happened ... is meant to be a chilling message to us, the concerned citizens, the rights advocates: You mess with us, you pay with your life," said a statement by the rights group CIVICUS, the Center for Cambodian Civic Education. "However, let us send a message back: We will not be bowed!"
The Phnom Penh Post newspaper said Chut Wutty was instrumental in helping it break a story last year about illegal logging and corruption in the same district where he took the journalists this week.
The Club of Cambodian Journalists, a press freedom and professional organization, condemned the shooting of Chut Wutty and urged that his attackers be brought to justice. It also urged the government to guarantee the safety of the two journalists who were with him.