Following protracted calls for his release by the Cambodian government, Kry Masphal, director of the Forestry Administration’s (FiA) Wildlife and Biodiversity Department under the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, was released on bail on December 27.

Masphal was arrested in the US on November 16. The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida (USAO-SDFL) indicted him for conspiring with a Hong Kong-owned company to smuggle long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) into the US between December 2017 and January 2022.

“This is a positive step and great news for Masphal and his family, especially his children, who have not spoken with him for more than a month,” said ministry spokeswoman Im Rachna.

According to Rachna, the release followed stern requests from US lawyers acting on behalf of the Cambodian embassy in the US and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Masphal is one of eight people indicted by the US court for allegedly violating the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the US’ Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act.

He was arrested at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York while in transit to a CITES meeting in Panama.

“Ensuring justice for all Cambodian officials, including Kry Masphal who encountered [legal] issues while on a mission abroad for the national interest, is the duty of the government.

“Maphal’s case still needs to go through court procedures in the US. The government will continue to provide legal and moral support and seek justice for him,” she added.

In a previous statement, the ministry said Cambodia adheres strictly to the CITES Convention and all other relevant national and international laws.

According to a court order by Judge Judge Kathleen M Williams in Chambers in Miami, Florida, Masphal should have been bailed to the Cambodian embassy on December 22, pending a December 27 move to residence in the Eastern District of Virginia. He was also ordered to be fitted with a GPS monitoring device while awaiting further court proceedings.

The delayed release dismayed Cambodia officials, including agriculture minister Dith Tina, who took to social media to question the postponement last week.

The ministry has insisted that the crab-eating macaques – referred to in US legal terms as non-human primates (NHPs) – are plentiful across Cambodia. They are a common sight in natural forests, the outskirts of most urban areas, and even at Wat Phnom, a popular tourist attraction in the heart of the capital.

“This species of monkey has been raised in farms for export to serve medical purposes since 2005. They are especially popular for laboratory research, medicine and vaccine trials and the development of cosmetics. The exported specimens were not taken from the wild, but were specifically bred for export. The export conditions adhered to both US and Cambodian law,” it said.

According to the ministry, the number of macaques exported to the US in 2020 was 17,821, in 45 shipments, 12,978 of which were authorised to Vanny Bio Research, co-founded and owned by one of Masphal’s co-accused.