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Truth About Cambodian Murder May Stay in the Forest

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This week, a Cambodian judge set free the only man tried in a case related to the murder of tireless forestry defender Chut Wutty. While viewed with outrage and contempt, the verdict lacked any element of surprise.

The investigation into the death of Wutty, who was shot dead April 26 by military police protecting an illegal logging site in the Cambodian jungle, has been marred with doubt from the beginning.

The government has shifted their account of the events of that day, on which a military police officer was also killed, four times. Public knowledge about the two journalists at the scene -- I was one of them -- being threatened with death by police following the alleged double murder has been ignored. Key witnesses have been left unquestioned, evidence has been disregarded and a trial that began earlier this month is widely believed to be a cover-up. It was during that cursory hour-and-a-half long hearing Oct.4 that the judge announced the probe into Wutty's murder had been closed for months.

Still, this week, the attention of the entire country was in Koh Kong province, a short drive from the red dirt road where Wutty was killed, anxiously awaiting the verdict in the case of Ran Boroth, a timber company security guard who has been charged in connection with the case.

On Monday, the judge found Boroth guilty of "unintentional murder," sentenced him to two years behind bars, and immediately suspended 18 months of his sentence. Having already served six months in jail since his arrest, he will be a free man as early as next month.

The trial, which rights groups have criticized for being politically motivated, was tainted with irregularities, contradictory witness testimony and a lack of evidence. The court failed to hear about ballistics analysis, fingerprints or wound trajectories, according to Cambodian rights group Licadho, present during the trial.

"The investigation into Chut Wutty's killing has been a mockery of justice from day one -- from the farcical explanations for his death, to the presentation of vague, uncontested conclusions masquerading as a trial," said Licadho director Naly Pilorge.

With the official closing of the case, the hope of getting answers into how Wutty died recedes further from reality. The blood of another fallen hero stains the pages of Cambodia's tragic history, and the profiteers behind systemic deforestation in the country continue to be spared from blame.

It is perhaps the most tragic thing of all that the powerful players behind the multinational companies stripping Cambodia of its last remaining trees continue to go about their plunder unimpeded and unnamed. Since Wutty's killing, there has been no inquiry into the people and outfits he lost his life fighting to expose.

"The court's decision represents a victory for Cambodia's corrupt business and political elite," said Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness, a UK-based environmental justice NGO. "It sends a clear signal that those who attack and kill the brave few who stand up for the rights of ordinary Cambodians can do so with impunity."

Now, with the official end of the probe into the double killing, which comes days after Cambodia failed to secure a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council and weeks ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama, Cambodia has once again proved it has no intent to change the course of its gruesome human rights record. It has proved it values profits over the lives of its own people, plantations over forests and national disgrace over justice.

Most chillingly, Cambodia has sent a message to the world that the daytime murder of a leading environmental and human rights crusader is a small price to pay to keep the grimy underbelly of Cambodia's multimillion dollar illegal logging industry intact.

And that the haunting secrets of the forest will forever remain between its rustling trees.