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Global Witness Denounces Government's Ban on Forestry Report

The government this weekend ordered the seizure of a scathing report by the forest monitor Global Witness that implicates Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Minister of Agriculture and the head of the Forestry Administration in illegal logging and the corruption that follows it. A spokeswoman for the group said Monday she wasn't surprised by the ban, given the laundry list of officials and business partners the report entails.

The report, which is available on the group's Web site in Khmer and English, points to the highest levels of government as complicit in illegal logging and the wholesale stripping of Cambodia's forest cover. The government banned copies of the report on Sunday, claiming it was politically motivated and the work of a spiteful organization.

The Global Witness spokeswoman, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the group's work, said the ban was more evidence of government failure to face corruption.

"We do deplore the government's decision to ban and confiscate this report and would like to raise the question as to what legal basis this decision has been made," she said. "We see their attempts at censorship as indicative of their reluctance to address the core issues of corruption that we have raised here and also of complete denial of freedom of speech."

The report, "Cambodia's Family Trees," is an extensive look into how illegal logging works in the country: where the logs are felled, how they are transported, processed, shipped and sold. It includes charts and graphs and photographs.

The spokeswoman denied any political motivation by the group, pointing out that Global Witness had reported on the Khmer Rouge and Funcinpec in 12 years investigating the sector in Cambodia.

"The fact of the matter is that in the current climate in Cambodia, those who are involved in illegal logging are those who are loyal to the CPP or to the prime minister, and it is those political networks that this report exposes," she said.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday the report was without evidence and the authors had not given the accused a chance to respond.

Center for Social Development Director Seng Theary called the government ban a violation of free expression and "against the line of thought of democracy."

"In democracy we give freedom in writing reports, doing research, having all kinds of opinions in society," she said. "We believe that, when we have an opinion, an idea, they are not wide open. Therefore we want to have competition in expressing ideas and opinions, so there would be all kinds of information in society, so that the people can decide and choose, to see if those ideas are correct."

US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said Sunday the US also was concerned about illegal logging and corruption.

Khieu Kanharith told the Cambodia Daily on Sunday the report was meant to incite political problems and was the work of a group disgruntled by its broken relationship with the government. Global Witness was fired as the official forestry monitor of the government in 2003, and closed its office in 2005, when some international staff were banned from the country, the spokeswoman said. The group continued investigating without announcing its presence, she said.

"The report is a rigorous piece of research, which Global Witness has done over a number of years, into illegal logging in the forest sector," the spokeswoman said. "We have attempted to report in an impartial manner on those who are involved in the industry. It just so happens that those who are closely involved in illegal logging in Cambodia at this present moment in time are closely linked to the prime minister, the minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and the director of the Forestry Administration."

The report came from numerous interviews with people closely involved in the illegal trade, she said, and the group gave each individual in the report a chance to respond.

"We have written letters to all those people named in the report, giving them the opportunity to answer questions and put across their point of view in regards to the content of the report," she said.

The report names Prime Minister Hun Sen, wife Bun Rany, and cousin Hun Chouch as complicit in forest crimes, as well as Hun Chouch's ex-wife, Seng Keang, and business partner Khun Thong.

The report also indicts Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun and Forest Administration Director Ty Sokhun, among other high-ranking officials and powerful businessmen. The report also blamed international donors for failing to use the leverage their foreign aid gives them to help preserve Cambodia's fast-dwindling forests.