Former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith once again failed to appear at Svay Rieng Provincial Court yesterday, nearly 16 months after he allegedly shot three women at a garment factory protest.
His second no-show, coupled with the subsequent walkout of his lawyers, left hopeful victims, their attorneys and civil society representatives exasperated over a case that has been dragged between courts and faced seemingly endless delays.
Before the hearing even began yesterday, argument broke out between the victims’ lawyers, defence lawyers and the prosecutor over a supposed technical error that included Bandith in the list of court witnesses.
Sun Bunnarith, one of Bandith’s lawyers, told the court he could not participate in the trial because Bandith was listed as a key witness at his own trial, while technical police experts had not been invited to testify.
“I come here to protect the suspect not the witness, so I cannot join this trial. And, if the court makes any decision, I will continue to the Appeal Court because it is unfair for my client,” he said.
Neither the judge nor the court clerk responded to the supposed mistake and ordered the hearings to continue despite Bandith’s absence, following which the defence lawyers left the court in protest.
“We have informed him and the court clerk also called to inform him so we have to continue the hearing. If his lawyers do not attend the hearing, that is their right,” judge Leang Sour told the packed courtroom.
The Appeal Court earlier this year ordered the Svay Rieng Provincial Court to try Bandith after it dropped the charges against him, quietly and with scant explanation, in December last year.
Dozens of military police officers were deployed outside the court, with representatives from factory supplier Puma, NGOs and various supporters of the victims carefully registered and sternly warned they would not be allowed to re-enter the courtroom should they leave. Sar Chantha, the Bavet town police chief, who was charged with the shootings before the court dropped its case against Bandith, took to the stand claiming he was not at the scene of the shootings and was unarmed on that day.
“I have been a police officer for 21 years and have done so much to help the community. I was very regretful beyond words when they accused me, and my reputation of 21 years has disappeared due to this accusation,” he said.
Mom Keosivin, Chantha’s defence attorney, said Bandith had found too many excuses and pretexts in order to avoid court, and asked the judge to issue a warrant for his arrest.
“If he were a simple citizen, he would have been in the prison a long time ago,” he said.
Keo Near, 18, who was shot in the hand at the protest, spoke tearfully to the judge, saying that until Interior Minister Sar Kheng fingered Bandith for the shootings, she did not think it was he who had committed the crime.
She added that she was asking for the “petty” sum of $45,000 in compensation and had she been shot anywhere else, she likely “would have died”.
Twenty-one-year-old Buot Chinda, who was shot in the chest at the protest, said she had turned up to work not knowing the demonstration was on and was waiting at a nearby factory with Near when they were both shot.
“What I want is to insist that the court finds justice for us and put the perpetrator in jail because we have been waiting for such a long time,” she said.
Sari Butcharya, a Cambodian Legal Education Center (CLEC) lawyer representing the victims, told the court that Bandith had no excuse to not attend the trial because he was charged as a suspect by the Appeal Court.
“My client has waited since a long time ago and this waiting is hurting my client more than her [original] wound,” she said.
Moeun Tola, CLEC executive director, said there were some positives to be taken from yesterday’s hearing − despite the actions of the defence − as a number of police witnesses were able to testify.
“I believe that Chhouk Bandith has no intention to join the court and his lawyer just found a small technical problem that allowed him to walk out of the trial,” he said.
It did appear that the court’s error was a legitimate one, he added, saying it did not seem to be a ploy to delay proceedings further.
“I think the lawyer just took that as an opportunity.”
Hearings continue today.