Cambodia Closes Case, Thwarts Justice, in Forester Murder

10/10/2012 11:50 am ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

The Cambodian government has rightly earned failing grades for doing nothing to halt or investigate human rights abuses. Its decision last week to drop a judicial probe into the killing of the country's top environmental activist shows yet again that the ruling party condones the crimes of rogue land profiteers and discounts the lives off its downtrodden citizens.

Those of us outraged by the murder of forest protector Chut Wutty in April were hoping the trial of a logging company security guard named Ran Boroth would expose what really went on in the woods the day Wutty was killed.

But on Thursday, the judge in Boroth's case announced there would be no further inquiry into Wutty's death. In another blow to the slain activist's friends and family, Boroth is likely to be acquitted and set free later this month. It is almost certain he will never have to talk about the people behind the illegal logging compound that he and other soldiers were protecting the day Wutty died.

In dismissing the case, the government has abandoned any effort to find out the real story behind Wutty's murder. Wutty made many enemies trying to save the Cambodian woodlands from rapacious developers. For years, Prime Minister Hun Sen's cronies have been accused of facilitating illegal logging in supposedly protected areas. Military men like the ones that confronted Wutty that fateful day in the forest serve as the paid thugs of multinational logging gangsters. Now, Cambodia is signaling to the world that it does not want to expose the politicians, police officials and international businessmen complicit in Cambodia's blood wood scandal.

"This 'trial' is a cover-up of the most primitive kind," Marcus Hardtke, an independent environmental expert and friend of Wutty's, told me. "The government has shown no interest in solving this case. As of a week ago, the criminals running the operation in the mountains are still in business."

Since 1990, Cambodia has experienced one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world, with some 6,200 square kilometers of old-growth woodlands and endangered timber cut down in the country's most pristine jungles. Much of that loss comes from the sacred Cardamom mountains, one of the greatest ecological wonders in Southeast Asia. There, Chinese firms and their local partners are tearing down trees to make way for hydropower dams and extravagant entertainment complexes.

In addition to outright illegal logging, land concessions for sugar, rubber, acacia and mining plantations are a major cause of illegal clear-cutting. In many instances, a loosely organized network of influential businessmen, members of the ruling party and a for-hire mercenary army operate the country's most lucrative logging schemes. Thugs routinely harass villagers, threaten rights leaders and in Wutty's case, shoot to kill. Interpol has recently reported that organized crime figures are deeply entwined in the illegal logging trade.

The international community, though, does not seem to be paying attention. Donald Jameson, a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer who served in Phnom Penh, said that the United States -- a growing ally of the Cambodian government and the nation with the most power to influence the situation on the ground -- is more concerned with geopolitics than human rights.

"Unfortunately, I doubt that many of the donors will be putting much pressure on the Hun Sen government about this any time soon," Jameson wrote me in an email. "There are too many other interests involved, including maintaining a presence in Cambodia to balance off the Chinese."

It's just the "sad reality," he said.

Propping up the Cambodian budget since the 1990s, international donors have done little to pressure the government to stop the land-related killings, which have taken three lives, including those of a 14-year-old girl and an investigative journalist -- in less than six months. It is likely an upcoming international donor meeting in Phnom Penh will only see the murderous regime rewarded with another blank check.

Reports on illegal logging will continue to be issued, well-intentioned yet sedentary organizations will continue to condemn the bloodshed and trees will continue to be razed in fast disappearing forests while the one man that stood up against the plunder will fade further into obscure martyrdom.

The saddest part is that Wutty would have been the least surprised of all of us at the injustice of his own murder and continued loss of his nation's trees.

"Corruption," he would have said flatly in his laconic way, explaining it all.