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Cambodian Environmental Activists Press Murder Probe

Chut Wutty, Director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, gestures at Botum Sakor National Park in Koh Kong province, Cambodia, February 2012. (file photo)

Cambodia's government is promising a thorough investigation into last week's mysterious killing of prominent environment campaigner Chut Wutty. Some former colleagues of the outspoken activist, however, say they're skeptical about what the inquest actually will achieve.

Wutty's death provoked outrage from rights groups, who claim the government frequently turns a blind eye to illegal logging in the Cambodian countryside.

The government responded this week by ordering an investigation into Wutty's death. But Marcus Hardtke, a friend and former colleague, wonders if the inquest will produce tangible results, or merely cover up the larger problem.

"Now what happens sometimes in these cases, is the next easy way out, and that is probably finding another scapegoat and blaming it on that person or a group of people. So I would say I'm not optimistic. But I would just say, okay, do your investigation and let's see what happens," said Hardtke.

Illegal logging dispute precedes shooting

Wutty was shot and killed last week while escorting journalists near a protected forest area where critics say illegal logging is a major problem. The journalists, who work for a local newspaper, reported that Wutty found himself in a heated argument with military police officers, who demanded that he hand over photographs he had taken.

The journalists said, though, they did not see who fired the shot that killed Wutty. Military police later claimed a rogue officer shot Wutty, then turned the gun on himself.

Hardtke said he hopes the inquest will focus not only on Wutty's death, but also will look at the larger problem surrounding illegal logging.

"I hope in all this, the problem will not be forgotten. It's not really a question of who in the end did it and who pulled the trigger. This is more of a symptom. We have to address the problem," said Hardtke.

Government vows 'full investigation'

Critics also have raised concerns about who the government has appointed to the investigating committee, including a member of the military police itself.

But the government, which denies that large-scale illegal logging takes place in Cambodia, is urging patience.

"The single incident that took place four days ago in Koh Kong province, that is a single incident. We do not know what is the main cause that led to the tragedy of the two guys get killed," said Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers. "You and I, we do not know. That is why the government, my prime minister, he is very committed to have a committee established to investigate the case."

Tha said the government is committed to conducting a "proper and full investigation."