Land Department Director Charged With Forging Papers to Clear Forest

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An electricity line in Stung Treng province on August 13, 2020. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
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A provincial land management department director — formerly of Stung Treng, currently of Ratanakiri — has been charged with the forgery of public documents for allegedly issuing certificates to clear 77 plots of forestry land.

Both authorities and a local rights group representative said they were looking for collaborators of the man, who was transferred to Phnom Penh after the alleged seven-year-old crime, then later put in charge in Ratanakiri, according to a Stung Treng spokesperson.

Ya Narin, director of the Stung Treng Provincial Court, said on Thursday after reporters obtained documents related to the case this week, that Ly Usaphea had been charged and placed under court supervision but not jailed.

“He has been charged with issuing certification for clearing forest land,” Narin said.

The investigation was still ongoing following the court action in August, Narin added. “Our judge is working on the case. Generally speaking, it is possible that there were others involved,” he said. “He couldn’t do it alone.”

According to a document signed by chief provincial prosecutor Chet Khemara and dated August 28, investigators found irregularities related to 77 plots totaling 528 hectares in three locations.

Usaphea allegedly issued 34 land certificates in a biodiversity conservation corridor in Thala Barivat district’s Sam Ang commune, and further 11 and 32 certificates in dense forest in Sam Ang and Anlong Chrey communes, respectively, all in October 2014, the document says.

Stung Treng provincial hall spokesperson Meng Kong said Usaphea had been transferred to the Land Management Ministry in Phnom Penh, then made head of Ratanakiri’s land management department last year.

The ministry had invalidated the relevant land titles issued by Usaphea in Stung Treng, while the court was looking for collaborators, Kong added.

“The most concerning thing is the clearing of forest in two [types of] areas, natural protected areas and biodiversity conservation areas,” he said.

The province also faced a bigger problem of systematic clearing of large areas of forest, Kong added.

“Our forces cannot hang hammocks permanently in the forest, and we do not have enough forces,” he said. “They can only patrol sometimes. … Sometimes those people do it at nighttime.”

Bey Vanny, provincial coordinator for local human rights group Adhoc, said more local officials must be involved, including those who measured the land.

“It’s not only him who was responsible for it,” Vanny said. “When authorities commit crimes, they have to bear the responsibility like ordinary citizens. … We hope to find more collaborating officials who are responsible for this.”

The illegal cutting of forest was still ongoing, and would continue until the law was properly enforced, he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Meng Kong as saying the certificates were for farmland.

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