Former Bavet town Governor Chhouk Bandith, who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment two days ago for shooting three garment workers, remained free as of yesterday evening despite outcry from observers that a verdict without enforcement was a hollow measure.
Svay Rieng provincial police chief Hem Saban said yesterday that he was taking action to implement the provincial court’s verdict, but that even after dividing his forces to search for the disgraced governor, Bandith’s whereabouts were still unknown.
“What is important now is that we do not know where he is because he has many houses. But our forces are looking for him,” he said.
Bandith was convicted on Tuesday on charges of unintentional violence after he shot and injured three workers who were protesting for better working conditions in February 2012. His case had been delayed for more than a year, and the charges against him were dropped once before, much to the consternation of rights groups.
According to an unnamed police officer, Bandith has three homes in Svay Rieng province – a villa in Bavet town, a home in Chantrea district and another in his home district of Romeas Hek – in addition to a home in Phnom Penh.
“What we suspect is that he may be living in Phnom Penh, because after the problems he did not often stay in Svay Rieng,” the officer said.
Bandith’s fenced-off Bavet town villa appeared empty yesterday, and a woman living nearby who asked not to be identified said that, apart from occasional visits, his family hadn’t lived in the house since word of the shooting spread.
Deputy Provincial Governor Men Vibol said Bandith has also been a no-show at work. According to Vibol, Bandith never once showed up for his job in the Provincial Hall, where he was transferred after being removed as Bavet town governor.
“I do not know the reason why, for more than one year, he never came to work in the hall,” Vibol said.
Washing dishes in her home, victim Keo Near – who received eight million riel (about $2,000) in compensation – said that though the court’s verdict had delivered justice in principle, it would mean little without Bandith’s imprisonment.
“I insist the authorities arrest him and put him in jail soon as possible,” Near said. “If Chhouk Bandith is not jailed, it means the court’s verdict is useless and this is still an injustice for me.”
Fellow victim Nuth Sakhorn, who was awarded 10 million riel, said she too was happy to see him convicted, but would not “lose [her] fear unless Chhouk Bandith is handcuffed and put in jail so [she] can sleep well”.
Svay Rieng resident Om Korng – who has followed the case’s twists and turns – echoed civil society’s criticisms that Bandith’s sentence had been too light but said that it was still better than nothing.
“Although he is imprisoned for that short period, it is good for victims; better than if the victims stayed with their sufferings and their injuries. But the perpetrator still gets to go have coffee and eat noodles with no problem,” he said.